Convicted drug felons who apply for or receive federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits in Maine will soon have to undergo drug testing.

The rule change, announced Wednesday by Gov. Paul LePage, was authorized by a compromise law that passed in 2011 but had yet to be implemented.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has spent several months designing its drug-testing program to ensure privacy and fairness, while reinforcing accountability and integrity, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

“Maine people expect their tax dollars to be spent supporting our most vulnerable citizens – children, the elderly and the disabled,” LePage said in the release. “We must ensure that our tax dollars do not enable the continuation of a drug addiction. TANF is a short-term benefit that assists families and children with the basic necessities. If someone tests positive for drugs, they are clearly putting their addiction ahead of their family’s needs.”

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who worked on the compromise, criticized the governor for only now enforcing a three-year-old law.

“This law has been on the books for years,” Eves said. “We need leaders who are serious about solving problems and enforcing the law, not simply scoring political points in an election year at a time when Maine’s economy is lagging.”

The state will conduct background checks on all adult TANF recipients to see how many will require testing. An early analysis suggested the number is in the hundreds, said DHHS spokesman John Martins.

In June, the most recent month for which the state has TANF data, there were 7,119 cases and 11,588 children receiving benefits.

The number of cases in Maine has decreased dramatically during the LePage administration, particularly since he succeeded in implementing a 60-month cap on TANF benefits beginning in June 2012.

Last June, there were 8,422 cases. In June 2012, there were 10,585 cases. And in June 2011, there were 14,133 cases.

ELEVEN OTHER DRUG-TESTING states

Since TANF was created in 1996, many state governments have proposed drug testing, which federal law permits while leaving it to states to craft their own implementation language.

Eleven other states currently have some form of drug testing for TANF recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in many other states have tried and failed in the past few years to pass legislation.

States that do have the laws either require recipients to be tested if there is reasonable suspicion they might be drug users, or require applicants to fill out a questionnaire designed to gauge whether they use drugs.

Laws that have called for random drug testing have faced constitutional challenges in some states, including Florida, where a law was struck down earlier this year.

One of the biggest advocates for Florida’s drug-testing initiative was Tarren Bragdon, CEO of a nonprofit group called the Foundation for Government Accountability. Bragdon is a former director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center and was a member of LePage’s transition team after he was elected.

LePage and his Republican allies in the Legislature failed in an attempt to pass legislation that would institute random drug testing for all welfare recipients. Democrats opposed the measure, saying random drug testing was just another way to demonize welfare recipients.

Testing that targeted drug felons, as opposed to random testing of all welfare recipients, was seen as a compromise by Republicans and Democrats and was included in the 2012-13 state budget bill that passed in 2011.

The rule change proposed by LePage still needs to go through a rulemaking process, which requires a public hearing, but DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a written statement that the state’s proposed rules align with federal law.

Under the proposed rules, anyone who applies for TANF must disclose whether they have a prior felony drug conviction. If they do, they will be tested. If someone fails to disclose a conviction, they will be denied benefits.

All drug trafficking convictions are felonies and some drug possession convictions, depending on the circumstances, are felonies as well. For instance, any possession of heroin or methamphetamine is a felony.

If a person tests positive, he or she will have the option to be tested a second time. At any time, even after a failed test, an individual can avoid termination of benefits by enrolling in an approved and appropriate substance-abuse program.

Martins, the DHHS spokesman, did not answer directly how much the drug testing will cost, but said the state will use funding available within its block grant. The state has estimated that the cost per test will range from $20 to $50.

“We believe that a small investment on the front end to ensure that scarce resources are used for their appropriate purpose is well worth it,” Martins said.

Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said she’s concerned that LePage is creating “more administrative burden for a department that can’t meet it’s current requirements.”

Merrill also worried about the possibility that children will be punished for their parents’ drug addictions.

“This is playing politics with people’s lives,” she said.

Michaud, Cutler back drug tests

The governor has made welfare reform a central issue in his re-election campaign. Within hours of his announcement Wednesday, the Maine Republican Party issued a statement calling on LePage’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, to take a position on the proposal.

Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler both said they support testing for drug felons, but they criticized LePage’s timing on the rule change.

“Mike supports this approach and thinks that the focus on drug treatment is correct,” said Lizzy Reinholt, Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman. “This has been Maine law since 2011, and it’s clear that Gov. LePage is either incapable of following the law or has delayed implementation for political expediency in an election year.

“His inaction on this issue is another example of why Maine needs an inspector general to ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services is doing its job and enforcing the law.”

Said Cutler: “This is simply implementing what the current law requires, and I support that law and the policy behind it. Maine’s next governor also has a responsibility – which LePage has failed to meet – to make sure that there are sufficient treatment programs and resources in Maine to help those who fail the test. Throwing addicted Mainers into our jails and prisons isn’t the answer.”

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest initiative by LePage that continues the narrative that welfare reform is his top priority.

Two weeks ago, he announced that Maine would start requiring recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, to fulfill work requirements. The state had previously obtained federal waivers of that requirement.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned in June by the Portland Press Herald suggests that LePage’s messages on welfare and public assistance will resonate with many voters.

Among more than 600 people surveyed, 46 percent said welfare does more harm than good, while 43 percent said assistance does more good than harm. Additionally, 41 percent of those polled said they don’t believe most welfare recipients need the assistance they receive.

Advocacy groups remain concerned about the implications of drug testing, even for felons.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said drug testing is an affront to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The governor should be focused on policies that help Maine families, not yanking out the safety net and depriving them of food,” said ACLU Executive Director Alison Beyea. “If we truly want to combat drug addiction, we should fund more drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to much-needed assistance.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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