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Politics

LePage Moves Forward With Plans to Test Welfare Recipients for Drugs

The LePage administration will propose rules this month to implement a law passed three years ago by a Republican-controlled Legislature that allows the state to require convicted drug felons to be tested for drug use if they apply for welfare assistance.  The new proposal, which would be applied to those seeking benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also known as TANF, is as controversial now as when the law was passed in 2011.

 

Gov. Paul LePage used his weekly radio address to announce that the Department of Health and Human Services will propose the drug testing rules this month.

"If someone tests positive they are putting their drug habits or addictions ahead of their family needs," he said. "We must do all that we can to insure children’s needs are being met and that TANF recipients have the best possible chance at economic independence."

DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew acknowledges that the number of people affected by the new rule will likely only be a few hundred.  As of June there were just over 7,000 TANF cases.  Mayhew says the estimated $20 to $60 cost of a drug test will be paid for with part of the $78 million a year federal block grant for the TANF program. She stresses the rule has been constructed based on what other states are doing.

"We have been evaluating similar situations in other states that have done similar drug testing to make sure that what we propose is aligned with federal law, with the legislative intent," Mayhew says.

But Sarah Gagne Holmes of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a low-income advocacy group, doubts that the rule will hold up, given what has happened in other states.

"It’s been struck down in court," she says. "Whether or not Maine has actually developed a process that doesn’t violate someone’s Fourth Amendment rights is in question and we won’t know that until we see the proposed rule."

Alison Beyea, executive director the ACLU of Maine agrees that the new proposed testing policy is on shaky constitutional ground. She says her organization will carefully analyze the language of the rule and says the ACLU opposes the thrust of the policy.

"We think this is a terrible idea," Beyea says. "If we truly want to help families combat drug addiction we should be funding more treatment program rather than blocking access to this very needed assistance."

Beyea says the LePage administration has sought to cut drug treatment programs at a time when Maine’s drug problem needs increased treatment efforts. Commissioner Mayhew says the state provides drug treatment programs for TANF recipients and that a person that tests positive for drug use under the program and goes into treatment will not have benefits cutoff.

She says this testing program for drug felons could serve as a model for moving beyond testing for drug felons only. "We in the LePage administration will be interested in evaluating expanding this effort to provide drug testing for larger populations within this program," she says.

House Speaker Mark Eves, a North Berwick Democrat, was the ranking minority member on the Human Services Committee in the 2011 Legislature that negotiated the drug testing measure for convicted felons. He says the governor should have implemented the bipartisan plan long ago.

"For me, this is nothing more than election year politics that the governor is trying to do all he can to distract away from his poor job creation record," Eves says. "He has been an awfully bad CEO for the state."

Once the rule is proposed, there will be a public hearing, followed by a period of time for written comments to be filed.  Mayhew says she expects the rule-making process to be completed and the new rule to be in place by this fall.