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.
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.
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.
“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.
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, email@example.com