Scott Walker’s light-on-details drug testing plan
Scott Walker’s light-on-details drug testing plan a hit on the stump By Jason Stein of the Journal SentinelMarch 17, 2015
As Walker stumps around the country for his still undeclared presidential bid, the GOP governor’s plan to require drug screening and treatment for certain recipients of government help has been one of his surest applause lines at Republican events.
At home, there are questions about whether the plan would save or cost taxpayers money and whether testing in some programs will be allowed by the courts or President Barack Obama’s administration.
This month, for instance, Florida Gov. Rick Scott dropped his legal defense of a plan to drug test welfare recipients in his state after two federal courts ruled it was unconstitutional.
But as a Republican working toward his party’s 2016 nomination, Walker has little downside to pushing an idea that typically polls well even among general election voters, including those in Wisconsin. Politically, Walker wins whether the plan succeeds or is blocked by the courts and a Democratic president who’s deeply unpopular with GOP primary voters.
Robert Rector, a longtime advocate for welfare overhaul at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Walker deserves credit for his proposal even if it doesn’t lead to immediate action.
“We had a lot of debate about reforming welfare and promoting work 20 years ago,” Rector said. “A lot of that has really fallen by the wayside. I think it’s important to go back and renew that.”
Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget & Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said Walker’s proposal is more about making a political point about government programs than making immediate changes to them.
“Drug testing has never been about policy to address drug abuse. It’s always been political sound bites and stigmatizing (welfare recipients),” she said.
After mostly sitting quietly during many speeches on March 7, the crowd at the Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines applauded several times when Walker described requiring drug testing, treatment and job training as a condition for able-bodied adults in welfare programs.
“We know there are jobs out there,” Walker said. “People in Madison, in my state Capitol, (say) somehow we’re making it harder to get government assistance. I’ve got to tell you, we’re not. We’re making it easier to get a job.”
Walker presents his proposal as part of a broader overhaul of safety net programs for the needy. As governor and as a potential presidential candidate, he’s argued that the federal government needs to remove restrictions on states about how they use federal tax dollars and give the states more flexibility to reshape programs like food stamps or welfare.
There’s little doubt that testing requirements are politically popular — 12 other states have passed some form of drug testing for public benefits.
In Wisconsin, an October survey of likely voters by the Marquette University Law School found that 56% of them favored Walker’s proposal and 40% opposed it. The governor successfully campaigned on his plans during his re-election last year.
“Governor Walker’s drug testing proposal was a hit on the stump in Wisconsin when he was running for re-election this past fall. At events around the state, including many in factories, some of the loudest applause was in response to this proposal to help people become workforce-ready,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.
But there are still few details known about the plan to drug test applicants for the food stamps program known as FoodShare, the Medicaid program known as BadgerCare Plus health care, unemployment insurance and the welfare program.
Under Walker’s 2015-’17 budget bill, able-bodied adults who fail the drug tests could receive benefits if they enrolled in treatment and stuck with it. If they didn’t, they would be barred from receiving benefits paid for by federal and state taxpayers. But almost no projected cost and savings estimates have been released by the Walker administration.
In the lone exception, Walker wants to use $500,000 in taxpayer money starting in 2016 to pay for drug treatment in the jobless insurance program but no money for the actual testing.
Over the next two years, state taxpayers will pay more than $18 million to provide 20 hours of job training a week to nearly 130,000 more FoodShare recipients in Wisconsin under a requirement already approved by Walker and lawmakers.
States are allowed under federal law to place a training requirement on food stamp recipients.
But drug testing public benefit recipients is a dicier proposition under federal law.
For instance, under the welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, federal law allows states to drug test applicants. But a federal trial court judge in Orlando and then the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the testing amounted to an unconstitutional search and seizure by Scott’s administration in Florida because the broad drug tests weren’t targeted toward applicants at risk of abusing drugs.
Opponents like Schott point out that the cost of the testing in states like Florida outweighed the cost of the benefits that would have otherwise gone to the small fraction of recipients who tested positive.
Rector said those arguments ignore the number of drug users who may have not applied for benefits at all because of the tests. Schott said she was more concerned about sober people in need who may have not received benefits because they simply weren’t able to find time or transportation to take the test.
On food stamps and Medicaid, federal rules prohibit states from doing broad drug testing, which is one reason in those programs Walker’s budget bill merely calls for seeking a largely undefined waiver of those rules from federal officials.
Schott said she believes the Obama administration is unlikely to approve those requests for broad drug testing and that blanket testing would also face constitutional challenges in the courts.
“My theory is (politicians) don’t really care about doing it. They just like to talk about it,” Schott said.
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) disagreed. He said that he believes Walker’s proposal has a better chance of winning approval from the Obama administration and the general public because it includes treatment for drug abusers, not just a loss of benefits.
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