November 5, 2011

Governor: Drug-test welfare recipients

Gov. Paul LePage said he wants to deter people from 'benefit shopping,' but an advocate for the poor says the program would be unconstitutional.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

JAY - Gov. Paul LePage said Friday he wants to require random drug testing for welfare recipients.

"I'm going to ask the Legislature to allow us to do what every truck driver in the United States of America has to do, take a random test," he said. "I think if we're going to take our own limited resources, we ought to be able to test 'em on occasion."

The comments came at a business chamber breakfast in Jay, where LePage gave an overview of accomplishments from the last legislative session and previewed some of his goals for the new year.

With regard to drug testing, the Legislature added provisions in the budget this year that allow the state to test people who receive funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if they have a felony drug conviction. LePage said he wants to take it a step further and explained that he believes people go "benefit shopping" when deciding where to live.

As proof, he talked about an email he received recently from a woman who asked him if the benefits provided by Maine are better than those in New Hampshire.

"I found that very insulting," he said. "I responded by saying 'ask not what the state of Maine can do for you, but what you can do for the state of Maine. Have a nice life."'

Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice, which provides legal services for the poor, said random drug-testing programs in other states have been found to be unconstitutional. She said that's why a bill that would have required random drug testing for MaineCare recipients did not pass earlier this year.

"Random drug testing is very questionable legally with respect to constitutional issues," she said. "If the government has the right to drug-test people based on receipt of aid from public assistance programs, what is to stop the government from requiring drug testing for anyone who receives a student loan or any other government benefit? This law would create a very slippery slope with respect to infringement on people's right to privacy."

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott urged the Legislature to adopt a drug-testing initiative for welfare recipients earlier this year. A story in the Tampa Tribune published in late August stated that 2 percent had tested positive since the program began July 1. In Florida, those who get cash welfare benefits have to pay for their own test, but get reimbursed by the state if they pass, the newspaper reported.

The savings to the state could reach nearly $100,000 a year in Florida, although the cost of staff time and money spent to implement the program had not yet been calculated, according to the Tribune. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has since sued the state, which is appealing an injunction that has stopped the practice.

More than two dozen states have proposed drug testing for those who get welfare benefits or other assistance, but Florida was the first to enact such a law in more than a decade, The Associated Press reported.

While he is continuing to focus on welfare reform, LePage said he will also look to make changes in education, the economy and energy.

He discouraged people from signing a petition that is likely to be found at polling places on Tuesday that would require Maine's utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020. The current requirement is 10 percent by 2017.

"There's a movement on to have petitions signed that say we want to go to renewable clean energy and we want to get away from oil," he said. "Don't be fooled. This is a bad deal."

He said the push for wind and solar power will require state subsidies and will drive up the cost of energy for Mainers.

Dylan Voorhees, a member of Maine Citizens for Clean Energy, said it's important to reduce the state's dependence on foreign oil.

"It paves the way for more clean energy and energy independence for Maine," he said. "This petition just puts the question on the ballot. We think the will of the people is important to listen to on this."

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com

 

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