ATLANTA — Relenting to critics, a Georgia lawmaker agreed Wednesday to slightly loosen a proposal that would require drug tests for poor people applying for welfare benefits.
Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, told a House subcommittee that he will change his legislation in reaction to critics who said it could unfairly penalize people who use drugs to cope with mental illness and women who seek financial help after fleeing abusive spouses. Spencer did not say exactly how he will change the proposal, which could get another committee hearing once it is complete.
Spencer said his bill was intended to protect children, but he also described it as necessary to protect taxpayers.
"It's the taxpayer of the state of Georgia who ends up paying the bill for their choices and their disease," Spencer said, referring to drug addicts.
His legislation would require everyone applying for welfare to take a drug test. Applicants would have to pay out-of-pocket for the tests, although Spencer said many could seek reimbursement through government-run health care programs.
Those who failed drug tests would face a series of progressively strict penalties. A welfare applicant would be ineligible for financial assistance for one month after failing a first drug test. A second failed test would cut off funding for three months, while a third failed test would eliminate an applicant's welfare funding for three years.
Similar legislation was filed in 36 states last year, but passed only in Arizona, Florida and Missouri. A federal judge blocked Florida's program pending a lawsuit there. Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Government Accountability, backed Spencer's bill, saying that Florida saw a nearly 50 percent drop in approvals during the brief period when the tests were allowed.
"The program saves money," he said.
The Georgia Council on Substance Abuse questioned whether Spencer's bill would reduce drug abuse. For example, there are no penalties for people who abuse alcohol. The council's executive director, Neil Kaltenecker, said research shows addicts need support during their first year in recovery.
"That first year is very, very fragile," she said. "People are balanced between use and non-use. If they get support, they do better."
Others questioned whether it was fair to penalize people with untreated mental illnesses who cope by using illegal drugs and may be unable to follow testing rules. Some worried that those seeking welfare in rural areas might be unable to travel to a testing site.
The Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence faulted Spencer's bill because it would require both parents in a two-parent household applying for welfare to be drug tested. Shelley Senterfitt, an attorney with the coalition, said that would mean authorities would be forced to contact an abusive spouse after a battered woman had fled and sought financial help from the state government.
"This would be a way her abuser could track her down," Senterfitt said.