The federal courts have a chance to end the wholesale assault on personal liberty by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature and strike a blow against Big Brother government. A lawsuit filed last week by a U.S. Navy veteran seeks to overturn a new state law that requires welfare applicants to submit to a drug test before receiving cash assistance. The suit comes as preliminary results from the program suggest the scheme may not even result in significant taxpayer savings. What started as one of the governor's campaign gimmicks is simply bad policy, and Republican lawmakers should abandon it.
This infringement on constitutional rights now has a face: Orlando veteran Luis Lebron, a 35-year-old single father of a 4-year-old son. Lebron, who cares for his disabled mother and attends the University of Central Florida, was denied cash assistance in July after he refused to pay about $30 to submit to a required drug test. The lawsuit filed by Lebron and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida rightly contends the law is a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified more than two centuries ago, which holds that government cannot subject people to "unreasonable searches and seizures."
For the record, Lebron said he does not use drugs. And according to the preliminary results from the state's new testing, neither do most other Floridians who have sought temporary cash assistance since the law took effect. So far, the Department of Children and Families has found 2.5 percent of applicants were positive for drugs. Under the law, those applicants are now ineligible for benefits (averaging $134 a month) for a year, or in some cases, six months, when they will have to submit to another drug test. Only 91,000 of Florida's nearly 19 million people currently receive the cash assistance.
Aside from the legal issues is the expense and bureaucracy this has created. For every applicant who passed the drug test, the state will now have to cut a reimbursement check for the test's costs. Even saving the cost of benefits for applicants who test positive for drug use may barely cover the cost of testing nonusers. This shouldn't be a surprise: A DCF pilot study in 1999-2000 similarly concluded that the cost of administering a drug-testing program would yield little savings.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Scott contended the testing was necessary because a higher proportion of welfare recipients than other citizens used illegal drugs. Experts in the field questioned that assumption. Compared to the 2.5 percent drug test failure rate among welfare applicants, a 2008 federal study found 8 percent of all Floridians 12 and older used illegal drugs.
Scott pushed a policy more befitting George Orwell's Big Brother than the governor of Florida. He rationalized subjecting poor Floridians to an invasion of privacy with claims it would save taxpayer money. Now the plan's own preliminary results suggest even that justification is unfounded. Republican lawmakers who compromised their principles of less government to appease a new governor should have the backbone to admit their lapse in judgment and repeal the law.