ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday signed legislation that would require some people applying for welfare in Georgia to pass a drug test before they could get benefits.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the Social Responsibility and Accountability Act in the final days of the session, on votes that fell along partisan lines. Sponsors say its intent is to ensure that welfare benefits are used for their intended purpose, and not to subsidize drug use and associated criminal activities, and that it will also protect poor children and help addicted adults rebuild their lives.
Democrats criticized the proposal as an unfair burden on the poor. The law, which takes effect July 1, is expected to face a legal challenge.
Gerry Weber of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the organization is prepared to file a lawsuit over the issue, but not until it is put into practice.
"We are disappointed that the governor signed this and we believe that the state should await the outcome of Florida litigation involving the exact same drug testing scheme," Weber said Monday. "It's going to take a while for them to implement this. That would all have to happen before any lawsuit can be filed."
Courts have struck down similar laws in other states, although supporters in Georgia expressed confidence that the law here could withstand a legal challenge. Random drug testing is prohibited for constitutional reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined special exceptions to that, when a serious public need outweighs a person's right to privacy. But exactly what falls within that exception can get murky.
State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said lawmakers worked to make sure the bill would pass muster with the courts and that Georgia's law addresses concerns about privacy and illegal search and seizure raised in other states. Albers said Monday he is not worried about a legal challenge.
"Drug testing is so commonplace ... We worked very closely with folks in other states and attorneys' general offices to address all of the concerns," said Albers, the bill's sponsor in the Senate.
Under the bill, the state Department of Human Services is directed to create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by welfare applicants. Those able to prove they are receiving Medicaid would have to pay a maximum of $17, and those without Medicaid would be responsible for the full cost of the drug test. Applicants who take the drug test at their own expense would be eligible for reimbursement if they test negative.
Applicants who test positive for drug use would be ineligible to receive benefits for a month. A second positive result would result in a three-month ineligibility period, and a third violation would prevent someone from applying for benefits for a year.
Applicants who fail a drug test must pass another one before reapplying.
The Human Services department would be required to provide individuals who test positive with a list of substance-abuse treatment providers in their area, but the agency would not be required to provide or pay for treatment. Applicants who have been denied benefits for a year may reapply after six months if they can prove successful completion of a department-approved, substance-abuse treatment program.
Children under 18, physically or mentally handicapped individuals or those living in nursing or personal care homes are exempt from the drug-testing requirement to receive benefits.
Test results couldn't be used to prosecute people, and test records must be destroyed in five years.
Similar bills requiring testing for people seeking welfare, food stamps, health care or other assistance were proposed in at least two dozen other states. Such laws have already been deemed unconstitutional in Michigan in 2000 and Florida last year.
About a quarter of the 19,200 eligible people who file new welfare applications annually could be tested, according to state budget officials. The state expects about 17 percent a year to fail drug tests, a rate based on a 2007 federal study that examined drug use by people ages 18 to 25.
Albers said he expects the drug-testing mandate could generate at least $103,000 a year for the state, as drug users will either be unwilling to be tested, or kicked off the welfare rolls after failing a drug test.