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Judge's Welfare Drug-Test Injunction Called 'Insane and Irresponsible'

October 23, 2011 - 6:00pm

A federal judge's ruling temporarily blocking Florida's welfare drug-test law was assailed Monday as "insane and irresponsible."

"This is a deliberate violation of the law on the part of the judge," said Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation researcher who helped author the original law governing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven sided with an Orlando man and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which challenged the drug-testing requirement.

Luis Lebron, in a class-action suit, claimed that his Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure were violated.

In a narrow but lengthy ruling, Scriven's temporary injunction does not specifically address whether Florida is authorized to conduct drug testing of TANF recipients as a matter of "individualized suspicion."

But Rector said the federal law clearly enables states to "experiment" with TANF qualifications in a variety of ways.

"This is an open-ended law. It gives the states the continued right to experiment with how to screen applicants," he said.

Rector accused Scriven of demonstrating "absolute contempt for the law. It's totally outrageous and insulting to the taxpayer. She thinks she's a czar."

Florida's TANF drug-screening program, which took effect July 1, requires the Department of Children and Family Services to conduct the drug tests on adults applying for assistance. Recipients are responsible for the cost of the screening, which they would recoup in their assistance check upon qualifying.

Those who fail the drug test may designate another individual to receive the benefits on behalf of their children and do not receive a refund for the test.

ACLU Florida, which has already filed suit against Gov. Rick Scott over a requirement that government workers undergo drug testing, said, "What [Scott] is doing is giving ugly legitimacy to an unfortunate stereotype that has been in this country for a couple of decades -- that all welfare recipients are a bunch of drug abusers."

Scott's deputy press secretary, Jackie Schutz, responded to the ruling, saying, "Drug-testing welfare recipients is just a common-sense way to ensure that welfare dollars are used to help children and get parents back to work. The governor obviously disagrees with the decision and he will evaluate his options regarding when to appeal."

Last month, Rector said, "There is no constitutional right to receive welfare benefits, and most of these programs are not unconditional entitlements.

"To contest this is to contest the basic principles of welfare reform, and to argue that anyone is entitled to receive benefit from over 70 programs, irrespective of their behavior."

Noting that the national ACLU has even opposed metal detectors at airports, Rector said drug testing is mutually beneficial to the state and the recipient.

"We know from past experiments that job training programs work better if people are drug-tested," he said, pointing to reduced drug use and greater self-sufficiency by program participants.

Recalling the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) reforms that tightened rules during the Clinton administration, the Heritage researcher who specializes in welfare issues said, "We had groups saying the sky would fall and kids would starve. In fact, recipients responded more positively than anyone on the right or left imagined.

"For most part, they went out and looked for work. For those with drug problems, it forced them to deal with the issue."

To opponents' contention that drug testing constitutes a Fourth Amendment violation, or some form of profiling of recipients, Rector responded, "I don't think taxpayers should be required to give benefits to people using illegal drugs."

A report by the Foundation for Government Accountability calculated that drug-related denials of Florida TANF applicants in August resulted in annualized savings of $922,992 to the state.

"If these trends continue throughout the first year, the drug testing requirement will save Florida taxpayers $9,135,504 from July 2011 through June 2012," the report predicted.

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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