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A test of logic

Against the demonstrated ineffectiveness of similar programs in other states, the Indiana House has passed HB 1351, a bill that would require those who qualify for public assistance to undergo drug tests. And the comments are the same as the last time around:

They’re wasting our precious tax dollars. They refuse to listen to reason. They undermine our country’s basic values.

Maybe these folks on the public payroll who seem to be so free with hardworking Hoosiers’ money should be forced to submit to drug screenings.

No, not welfare recipients. Legislators.

The test-legislators-instead line has surfaced every time this proven loser of a bill tries to wend its way through the General Assembly. The danger is that, one of these years, the joke may be on Indiana taxpayers and, of course, the poorest among us.

Conceived by the legislative cookie-cutters at the American Legislative Exchange Council, the idea of drug-testing welfare recipients has already been tried by several states, with little justification or success. There is conflicting evidence on whether the very poor families targeted by this bill are any more likely to be drug abusers than the rest of the population. A federal study said they are. But in Minnesota, a study by the state’s Department of Human Services found that those who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were actually less likely to be felony drug users than the population as a whole.

But that’s not the point. The point is the Fourth Amendment, which protects all Americans, poor or not, from unreasonable search and seizure.

In halting Florida’s testing law, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven said the state had presented no credible motive for singling out the poor. But even if there were evidence that welfare recipients used drugs more frequently than others, she ruled, a law that mandates drug tests for a certain economic class is a violation of the Constitution.

States that have implemented such laws have spent lots of money to detect very few drug users. In Florida, where all applicants were tested, only 2.6 percent of applicants came back positive for drugs. In Arizona, where only applicants who admitted drug use within the last 30 days were tested, only one of the 87,000 applicants for welfare since its law was enacted has tested positive, saving the state some … $560. (There were marginal additional savings from applicants who failed to return their questionnaires for whatever reason. That saved $200,000 in benefits out of the $200 million paid in benefits since the testing began – one-tenth of one percent.)

Indiana’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Council estimates that Indiana would save $521,000 over two years by denying welfare benefits to applicants found to be using drugs – but that the program would cost $1.18 million. That’s not counting the inevitable costs of court challenges that the state would be very likely to lose.

This is the fourth time Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, has introduced this bill. Let’s hope the Senate applies the common-sense test instead and puts the proposal away for good.