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FL: State’s mandatory drug tests for welfare face biggest costs in court

By   /   December 4, 2012  /   7 Comments

By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog

MIAMI— Rick Scott campaigned for governor on the promise of drug testing welfare recipients in order to save money, but after protracted legal battles and expensive lawsuits, it’s the lawyers involved in the cases that have reaped the most benefit.

TEST ‘EM: Scott has been criticized for his plan to drug test welfare recipients.

The plan, begun to “increase personal responsibility and personal accountability,” hit its first hurdle in July 2011, just five months after it was implemented. It’s been the subject of hoards of lawsuits from applicants claiming the law was unconstitutional.

It was finally put on hold in October 2011 by Middle District Judge Mary Scriven, prompting the state to appeal and incur thousands of dollars in legal expenses that will be paid by Florida taxpayers.

Legal defense in the case has cost the state about $90,000, according to Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, but they wouldn’t provide information on the total costs of lawsuits pertaining to the law.

The Florida Justice Institute, the nonprofit civil rights law firm based in Miami that filed a challenge to the drug tests, said the costs could rise even more, depending on how long the final appeals process will take.

The ACLU of Florida, which also filed a lawsuit, requested that the state reimburse more than $313,000 in legal fees and costs after the injunction was ordered in October 2011.

HALTED: The state’s controversial program to drug test welfare recipients has been halted since October 2011.

Documents obtained by the Palm Beach Post showed that Florida taxpayers have so far paid at least $900,000 for attorneys’ fees in Scott’s first term, which opted for private firms to defend the cases in open court.

“I don’t believe it’s costing that much for the attorney general to pursue these cases, but I think the resources are being used properly,” said Tarren Bragdon, CEO of The Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank based in Naples.

He supported the law in hopes that it would save taxpayer dollars and help prop up and sustain welfare programs.

“Federal law specifically authorizes the states to require drug tests before applicants receive benefits, and that was passed by President Clinton,” Bragdon said. “This is an example of the state doing what was approved by federal law.”

Bragdon was referring to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a program created by Congress in 1996 to provide money to poor families with children while parents seek work. In 2011, Florida received $211 million in TANF block grants.

Under federal law, states have the right to set their own eligibility requirements for the assistance program, and are granted the authority to administer drug testing for welfare recipients.

“Not only did it save taxpayers’ money, but it also made sure social services went to those who really needed it,” Bragdon said. “You can’t just look at how many individuals were positive on the tests, but also how many didn’t take it altogether.

PAY UP: The ACLU has demanded that the state pay its legal fees for defending welfare recipients protesting mandatory drug testing.

“You have to see the full impact of program,” he added.

In 2012, more than 28 states planned similar drug screenings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but only seven of them signed a law making the tests a requirement.

Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma passed mandates similar to Florida’s, while Utah legislators approved a measure requiring welfare recipients to declare if they had used illegal drugs on a written form.

SAVER: Bragdon says the law actually saved money and aimed to reform welfare in the state of Florida.

A halted plan

Florida’s law requires applicants to pay between $25-$45 for the testing. If it is negative, a refund is given. A positive reading bars applicants from receiving welfare for up to one year.

Of the 4,086 Floridians to apply for welfare benefits from January to October 2011, when the program was active, only 108 failed the drug test, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Ethics critics point to Scott’s past connections to Solantic, the multibillion-dollar health care corporation he founded in 2001, as a conflict of interest because it provides drug testing and health services to welfare recipients.

His office has so far deflected criticism by pointing out that Scott traded his shares to his wife and later sold them for less than $60 million, according to spokeswoman Amy Graham.

The final judgment on drug tests for welfare recipients is expected from the U.S. Appeals Court in Atlanta in March 2013.

Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org.

Watchdog.org’s Florida Bureau Chief Yaël Ossowski translated this article.

— Edited by Kelly Carson, kcarson@watchdog.org

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Yaël is a writer, journalist and radio host. He has served as a Florida Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org and served as the site’s chief translator from Spanish into English. Yaël has worked as a multimedia journalist in Philadelphia, Charlotte, Tampa, and Vienna, and his writings have appeared in the Washington Examiner, The Gaston Gazette, Reason Magazine, Sunshine State News, Wisconsin Reporter, and PanAmerican Post. He has worked and studied in three countries across two continents. His Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History is from Concordia University in Montréal and the University of Vienna. He speaks four languages and his hometown is Saint-Hyainthe, Québec. His personal website is Yael.ca and his PGP key is available here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Atrieu.Evony Terry Murphy

    It’s not the policy itself costing taxpayers, it’s the damn liberal lawyers groups who are protecting the “free-riders”. As usual, we can count the worst of them all, the ACLU, at the top. This a state law approved under federal law. All these nuisance, obstructionist lawsuits should all be dismissed as such, and all legal fees incured by the states be reimbursed by them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/George-Blumel/792309404 George Blumel

    Terry is right, of course. Welfare recipients, especially those who abuse the system are, an important base of the Dem party. they vote for a living instead of work. Obama recruits them by offering more benefits for them to vote for him. Corruption, Chicago style!
    Gov Scott is doing the right thing for the right reasons and the anti-American groups like the ACLU are fighting him at every turn.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fore04 Curt Fore

    George did we read the same article. They can add the drug testing because of a law Clinton passed, and if I’m not mistaken Scott supported Obama, I saw an other article where Obama supports states that are doing the testing.
    This is not a dem or rep issue but a comman since thing that all states should do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/poohprincess1990 Jennifer Polson

    I do not agree with people having to pay for the drug testing becasue some people who need the help may not have the money for the testing, i agree that they need to do it but not to charge people for it..

  • sam

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tom.hartline Tom Hartline

    you get your money back if you test negative.

  • stubbikins

    You are upset that the Constitution is being protected and upheld?