Florida may try again to drug test welfare recipients who have felony convictions

Sen. Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, huddles with his son, Rep. Chris Latvala, R- Clearwater, on the floor of the Florida House,  on March 9, 2016.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, huddles with his son, Rep. Chris Latvala, R- Clearwater, on the floor of the Florida House, on March 9, 2016.
Published March 13, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Welfare recipients with a history of drug convictions could have to pass a drug test before receiving benefits under legislation pushed by two Tampa Bay lawmakers, a narrow rewrite of a much-maligned 2011 state law that federal judges threw out as unconstitutional.

People who apply to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly called TANF, would be subject to the tests if they had been convicted of a drug-related felony in the last 10 years under the bill (HB 1117). It cleared its first hurdle in the House Monday with an 8-2 vote by the Children, Families and Seniors subcommittee.

"Somebody that is receiving public assistance shouldn't spend those dollars on things like drugs," said Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is sponsoring the legislation with his father, Senate appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Opponents worry that drug testing will make it harder for people in need to access TANF. Applicants who have a drug felony would have to pay for a drug test up-front at an average cost of about $40. The state would reimburse them if they pass the test.

"Now there's another barrier to quality of life," said Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami. "You're placing a $40 requirement before a person can actually receive the help that he or she needs. Well, if a person is already asking TANF for assistance, then it makes sense to come to the conclusion that that person would not have the 40 dollars to take the examination."

It is estimated that about 400 new TANF applicants per month could be affected. If people fail the test, they would become ineligible for the benefits for one year, or for six months if they complete a drug treatment program at their own expense.

Asked if he considered using state money to fund treatment for those denied TANF, Rep. Latvala said the cost would be too high.

"In a perfect world, there'd be a way for them to have treatment without a cost to them," he said. "While it's a worthy cause to seek treatment and better yourself and overcome your addiction, I didn't believe it was society's responsibility to get that for them."

TANF is funded by the federal government, but it is run by the states, which are allowed to set requirements, including drug tests. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states have drug testing programs for welfare recipients.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed a broad law that required every TANF recipient pass a drug test. Mocked on The Daily Show, the law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which sued on behalf of Luis Lebron, a single father and welfare recipient.

The law was struck down by federal judges, who said it was overly broad and violated privacy rights of recipients who the state had no reason to believe were using drugs. The state ended up paying more than $700,000 in legal fees.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.