By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — It’s the talking point small government and tea party types love: Drug testing for people on the government dole.
It’s a part of GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Miller’s campaign platform, but it’s likely a faulty plank for the former Laurel state senator.
Miller, in a seven-way contest for the Republican gubernatorial nod, said he’s forwarding the idea not to punish welfare recipients, but to get people job-ready. His plan would give welfare recipients multiple chances to get clean before ending their public support.
“Unless we get people off drugs and work-ready, they are never going to get jobs,” Miller told Montana Watchdog on Monday.
A number of states have pursued the idea as of late to cut down on waste, fraud and abuse in social-welfare programs.
Problems with the plan are two-fold: Benefactors of some of the largest welfare programs are prohibited from drug testing by federal regulations, and testing can cost more than would be saved.
Typically, the two largest welfare programs for any state are Medicaid and food stamps that share costs with the federal government. The feds pay about 66 percent of a state’s Medicaid costs, and cover all groceries handed out through food stamps.
Montana covers administrative costs for Medicaid and food stamps, and the remaining 34 percent of Medicaid benefits.
About 104,000 Montanans participate in Medicaid, including about 69,000 children. Montana’s Medicaid program is budgeted to cost the state $1.14 billion in general funds and special revenue for fiscal 2012-13.
Food stamps provided $16.4 million in benefits to 127,000 Treasure State residents in March.
Because the federal government is involved in the two programs, myriad strings are attached to those benefits. One of those strings is no drug testing for program beneficiaries.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a cash-assistance program for poor families in emergencies, is one state-based program targeted by lawmakers who want to drug test welfare recipients. The federal government provides money for the program — created by Congress in 1996 — but gives states more flexibility in how they administer the welfare.
More than 8,000 Montanans received TANF benefits in February. The program costs about $20 million annually, according to state legislative fiscal reports.
But drug testing TANF beneficiaries usually costs more than it would save in benefits, as lawmakers in Florida and Idaho discovered.
A February 2011 study by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare revealed that the state would need to spend $1.1 million to save $67,000 in TANF benefit payments.
Florida lawmakers learned, by way of that state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter, that TANF drug testing would cost the state more than $45,000 extra each year.
Miller wants all unemployment recipients to undergo drug testing, too. That would be legal in certain cases under a provision Republicans inserted into recent federal payroll tax cut legislation.
The provision allows states to test those who were fired due to drug use before they applied for unemployment benefits. There are questions, however, if fired workers could qualify for benefits in that situation.
Montana House Minority Whip Margaret MacDonald, D-Billings, told Montana Watchdog she sees Miller’s idea as a waste of time and money.
“People who are on public assistance are already in job counseling,” MacDonald said. “I think this particular step … has some questionable civil rights issues.”
State Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, disagrees.
“This is something that’s very popular with my constituents, and I would support it,” Warburton said, adding that she expects a bill to enact drug testing to come forward in next year’s legislative session.
But would Miller and the Legislature be willing to pick a fight with the feds to allow Montana to drug test all program beneficiaries?
Miller, a candidate quick to admit he wants to “push back” on the federal government’s intrusion into state affairs, says yes.
“We’ve got to start standing up to the federal government on a number of issues,” Miller said. “And this just might well be one of those.”
Miller also said he’d be willing to include drug testing for lawmakers and the governor if that would positively sway public opinion of the idea.
Scott Crichton, executive director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Montana chapter, called Miller's idea a "dubious proposition" that would harm low-income families.
"It's disappointing he would choose to distinguish himself from the other candidates by declaring war on the poor," Crichton said.
He said his group would oppose most legislation designed to impose drug testing on welfare recipients based on constitutional concerns. He said the idea violates the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unlawful searches without reasonable suspicion.
"You'd think someone in the tea party would be about the Bill of Rights," Crichton said.