- Associated Press - Thursday, March 2, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill that would require drug screenings for Nebraska welfare recipients raised objections Thursday from civil liberties groups and advocates for low-income residents.

The measure presented to a committee would require applicants to complete substance abuse and job skills programs if they test positive for illegal drugs.

The bill is intended “not to punish individuals but to provide treatment for people with a substance abuse problem,” said Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, the bill’s sponsor.

Hughes said he introduced the bill at the urging of constituents in his southwest Nebraska district, who voiced concerns that welfare recipients might be abusing the benefit.

Under the bill, applicants who test positive would have to complete substance abuse and job skills training programs. Those who fail or refuse to complete either program would become ineligible for cash assistance for a year, or until both programs are completed.

The Department of Health and Human Services could assign a “protective payee” to handle finances for a parent or guardian who gets disqualified.

Nebraska has an average of 5,710 recipients per month, according to the department. The drug tests could cost an estimated $50,200 a year in state and federal money, based on the assumption that 11 percent of current adult recipients are suspected of drug abuse. If 4 percent of those tested are declared ineligible, the state and federal government would see a combined savings of $21,300.

Additionally, state officials say they’d have to hire a new program specialist at a cost of more than $73,000 in state and federal money.

Applicants would have to take a test if caseworkers suspect they’re abusing drugs, which Hughes acknowledged is a subjective standard. Hughes said the measure has problems that need to be fixed but argued the state should do more to help people who are abusing illegal drugs.

“We want people to live meaningful lives, and I feel dependency on drugs is a barrier,” he said.

Critics said the bill violates recipients’ constitutional rights by subjecting them to invasive tests. Unlike drug screenings required by employers, state tests for parolees usually require a test-taker to urinate in front of another person, said Amy Miller, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.

“There is nothing more invasive or more concerning … than literally making poor people expose themselves,” Miller said.

Additionally, Miller said a false positive could force recipients to take a second test at their own expense just to clear their name.

“We have no examples, no studies, no proof that this is even happening in Nebraska,” she said.

It’s also not clear whether the state has enough resources to test every suspected drug user, said Becky Gould, executive director of the group Nebraska Appleseed.

“I think there are a lot of questions there about whether treatment will actually be provided,” Gould said.

At least 15 states have passed laws that relate to drug testing or screening to qualify for public assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some apply to all applicants, while others target people with a history of drug abuse or those who are believed to be using.

Other states that required tests have found little evidence of drug abuse among recipients.

In the four months after Florida enacted its program, the state tested 4,086 applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and 108 - about 2.6 percent of the total - tested positive for illegal narcotics. Hughes noted that nearly 1,600 applicants declined to take the test, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte


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