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Drug testing for welfare recipients bill heads to governor

TALLAHASSEE — Applying for welfare benefits in Florida? Soon you'll need to get drug tested.

A measure requiring the tests passed the Senate on Thursday and is headed to Gov. Rick Scott, who called it one of his legislative priorities.

"It's fair to taxpayers," Scott said after the vote. "They're paying the bill. And they're often drug screened for their jobs. On top of that, it's good for families. It creates another reason why people will think again before using drugs, which as you know is just a significant issue in our state."

Scott already signed an executive order requiring random drug testing of state workers.

HB 353 requires all adult recipients of federal cash benefits — the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — to pay for the tests, which are typically around $35. The screen would be for all controlled substances and applicants would have to disclose any legal prescriptions.

Recipients who test positive for drugs would lose their benefits for a year. If they fail a second time, they lose the benefits for three years. Parents who test positive must designate another adult to receive benefits on behalf of their children.

Those who pass would be reimbursed by having their benefits increased by the cost of the test.

"This is an effort to stop this cycle of drug abuse," said Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, one of the sponsors, who added the requirement was similar to one that many employers make of workers.

The measure provides no money for substance abuse treatment.

Critics of the proposal say it unfairly targets the 113,340 Floridians who receive welfare benefits. They tried to push amendments that would have extended the testing requirement to others who receive state funds, including Bright Futures scholarship students and employees of corporations that get economic incentives.

"I think we also deal with every other entity that the state of Florida provides grants to," Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, said in debate Wednesday. Those amendments were withdrawn.

The bill passed the Senate 26-11 on Thursday and the House 78-38 late last month.

A state-funded pilot project found a relatively small percentage of welfare applicants tested positive for drugs. The project conducted in the Jacksonville area between 1999 and 2001 found that 335 applicants out of nearly 8,800 applicants failed a drug test.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.

Drug testing for welfare recipients bill heads to governor 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 8:36pm]
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