Senate passes pilot plan for welfare drug tests

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News
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Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Wednesday approved and sent to the governor's desk legislation to create a pilot program for the drug testing of welfare recipients and force genetic testing to determine the paternity of children whose families are on welfare.

The bills are among several pieces of contentious legislation conservative GOP lawmakers — who control the House and Senate — hope to push through in lame duck. Some legislators also hope Thursday to push through a package of bills to discourage "coerced" abortions.

The drug testing and paternity bills, approved by the House earlier, would go into effect immediately if they are signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder. A Snyder spokesman was non-committal, saying the Republican governor still needs to review the bills.

On a 26-10 vote, the Senate approved the legislation that would appropriate $500,000 to run a one-year pilot program that would involve drug testing of welfare recipients if there is suspicion of substance abuse.

The Michigan Department of Human Services would choose three or more of the state's 83 counties to participate in the program.

First-time violators would be given the chance to get treatment at a community mental health entity without risking the loss of aid. If they refuse treatment, their payments would stop, but children could continue to receive benefits sent to a relative or someone else approved by the state.

Sen. Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield, proposed amendments he said would soften the impact of the law on families, but they were defeated. The most passionate opposition came from Sen. Coleman Young II of Detroit.

"This is the war on the poor. Are we going to drug test other people who receive tax dollars? I don't think so," said Young, a Democrat. "We're going after a law that has been found unconstitutional in Florida and other states."

Supporters countered that they were applying the same standards of conduct expected in the private sector to public-sector benefits programs.

"This bill has nothing to do with poor people," said Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale. "This bill has to do with the fact that the working men and women of this state who pay for these benefits are subject to the same requirement (drug testing by employers).

"It's treating the people who are poor exactly the same as the working men and women of this state. Anything you can do to stop the scourge of drug taking by adults can only benefit children in the long run."

The chamber also passed a flotilla of bills aimed at holding fathers of children on welfare accountable for their kids.

The legislation specifies a procedure for determining paternity, including allowing a prosecutor to order genetic testing of men suspected of fathering or being the father of a child on welfare.

One bill also would amend the Social Welfare Act to specify that Family Independence Program benefits could be denied or terminated if a recipient fails, without good cause, to comply with applicable child support requirements including efforts to establish paternity and assign or obtain child support.

Similar drug-testing legislation was approved by the state Legislature in 1999, but a federal judge in 2000 ruled Michigan's pilot program unconstitutional. The judge held that, in the absence of suspicion that an individual was breaking anti-drug laws, the state did not demonstrate a "special need" that satisfied the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

Republicans hope to avoid constitutional objections by making only those welfare recipients who are suspected of drug use subject to testing.

Under the legislation, Department of Human Services officials would use an "empirically validated substance abuse screening tool" to see if there is a "reasonable suspicion" of possible drug use among Family Independence Program participants in the pilot counties. Those targeted would then be required to take a drug test, which could result in their benefits being ended if they test positive and their substance abuse is determined to violate state law.

Welfare recipients who refuse to take a drug test would be thrown off assistance but could reapply after six months. But they would have to test negative for drug use or show that a positive result didn't violate state law before benefits would be restored.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which opposed the 1999 drug testing program, also objects to the latest bill and is studying the paternity test legislation.

"Drug testing of welfare recipients is not only humiliating, these programs are a flagrant waste of resources that reinforce stereotypes about poor people," ACLU spokeswoman Rana Elmir said Wednesday, citing the state's decision to end as too expensive a settlement that allowed drug tests only when there was reasonable suspicion of drug use.

"The truth is individuals on public assistance are not any more likely to use drugs than others."

Time running out

Thursday could prove to be a critical day in the Legislature's lame-duck session, which is scheduled to end Dec. 18.

Under House and Senate rules, any bill that hasn't passed either chamber must get approved Thursday to get considered before the end of the session by the other chamber.

House and Senate leaders scrambled Wednesday to sort out plans to send several road funding bills to a still-unformed six-member conference committee to hash out a deal on their contrasting road funding plans. That plan was complicated by procedural requirements.

The House and Senate have passed vastly different plans for generating $1.2 billion in more funding for road repairs.

The Senate favored doubling the state's gas tax by 2018, while the House wants to divert existing revenue that currently goes to schools and cities to pay for fixing the state's pothole-ridden roads. Gov. Rick Snyder favors the Senate's approach.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, signaled Wednesday he may budge on his stance against raising new tax revenue.

"The speaker is willing to move up from zero dollars in new revenue," Bolger spokesman Ari Adler said. "The problem is, he's heard from no one (in the Senate) who's willing to come down from $1.2 billion."

Chad Livengood

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