AUGUSTA — The LePage administration urged lawmakers on Monday to deny welfare benefits to people with felony drug convictions and to screen applicants for substance abuse problems, saying its bill sends a message that tax dollars will not be used to reward what one official called “reprehensible personal behavior.”

But civil liberties and social services organizations warned that the measure could hurt the children of addicts – as well as adults who have turned their lives around – and further stigmatize a population that already struggles to find adequate treatment in Maine.

The bill is similar to measures that Gov. Paul LePage has pursued in years past, only to see them killed by the Legislature. Although administration officials insist that the latest version, L.D. 1407, avoids the constitutionality questions raised previously, it’s likely the proposal still will face an uphill challenge in the Democrat-controlled House.

This year, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services began drug-testing individuals with felony drug convictions before they receive welfare through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. Those who fail the drug tests must either enter a treatment program or face the loss of benefits.

The testing was part of a compromise brokered between the administration and lawmakers in 2011. However, lawmakers have rejected several attempts to drug-test all welfare recipients.

The latest bill would allow the state to deny TANF and food stamp benefits to anyone with a felony drug conviction, without testing. Federal law already prohibits TANF and food stamp benefits from going to convicted drug felons; however, states have considerable flexibility in administering the benefits by allowing them to waive the restrictions.

The bill also would require all TANF applicants to complete a questionnaire that administration officials contend has a 97 percent accuracy rate for determining whether an individual has a substance abuse problem. Individuals who score above a certain threshold would then be required to take a test for illegal drugs.

Holly Lusk, senior health policy adviser for the governor, said the bill would bring Maine into compliance with the intent of the federal law regarding drug convictions and would help protect children by encouraging addicted parents to seek treatment.

“The department believes that adoption of this bill will serve the purpose of sending a message of condemnation of drug felonies (and) the importance of treatment to overcome addiction, and will provide assurance to the taxpayers of the state of Maine that their hard-earned money will not reward reprehensible personal behavior,” Lusk told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

The Maine DHHS reported handling roughly 6,000 TANF cases in April. Among those cases are households that include a total of more than 9,900 children. A fiscal note estimating the costs of the bill was not available Monday.

The LePage administration has proposed using the same screening questionnaire – known as the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory, or SASSI – that has been adopted by other states looking to screen welfare recipients. But the authors of the SASSI have said the tool should be used to help substance abusers connect with treatment, not to deny them public assistance.

“When policymakers recognize the value of providing adjunctive services such as substance abuse counseling and vocational counseling to recipients of general assistance in need of such services, the SASSI can be a helpful tool,” the Indiana-based SASSI Institute wrote, according to documents provided to the committee Monday. “However, when public assistance is made contingent on participation in the assessment and treatment process, it increases the risk for violations of ethical principles and applicants’ rights.”

Oamshri Amarasingham, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, called the bill “constitutionally suspect” because federal courts have consistently held that governments require reasonable suspicion before requiring drug tests. Amarasingham expressed skepticism that the questionnaire was sufficient to provide reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause, for a drug test.

Several Democratic lawmakers and critics of the bill also noted that it goes far beyond the drug traffickers and serious offenders portrayed by the LePage administration. Under Maine law, illegal possession of widely abused prescription opiates such as oxycodone and hydrocodone is a felony offense that could result in the loss of benefits.

Jack Comart with Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit that provides legal aid and advocacy to low-income Mainers, said that could penalize people and their families for decades.

“What we are saying is, regardless of if you have paid your debt to society, we are still going to punish you,” Comart said.

Susan Lamb, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, suggested that denying TANF or food stamps to addicts will inevitably hurt the children who have no control over their parents’ poor behavior. Lamb cautioned against taking such steps unless the state is ready to put additional resources into the already overburdened foster family program.

Those comments prompted an exchange with committee member Rep. Frances Head, R-Bethel, who said it ultimately comes down to “adult choice” and whether drug users choose their children over their addiction.

“A lot of people in my district are adamant that something needs to be done, and this bill gets it going,” Head said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, noted that police occasionally find electronic benefit cards – essentially debit cards used to allocate some welfare benefits – that are being used as the equivalent of cash to purchase drugs.

“Every dollar being spent for illicit drugs is a dollar not going to care for the child or children in the home,” Sanderson said in her testimony.

The committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the bill Wednesday.