Florida Legislators Want to Waste a Bunch of Money Drug-Testing Welfare Recipients

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The stereotype of the drugged-out welfare queen is one of Republican legislators' favorite tropes. There's nothing a GOP-controlled government body loves more than raging about poor people taking government handouts and then using that cash to get high and avoid work all day. And, understandably, that would be a very bad thing to do.

There's just one small problem: Research overwhelmingly suggests that only a minuscule percentage of welfare recipients abuse drugs and that state drug-testing programs are a huge waste of taxpayer money. Worse, Florida already blew millions in Gov. Rick Scott's first term on legal battles over drug-testing rules that the courts eventually threw out.

That hasn't stopped a father-and-son pair of state Republicans from trying to pass legislation to force some Floridians on state assistance to pee in cups. Sen. Jack Latvala and his son, Rep. Chris Latvala, have introduced matching welfare drug-testing bills.

The Latvalas' bills would be more narrowly tailored than some welfare drug programs, requiring drug tests for anyone with a "documented history of multiple arrests" for drug use or possession in the past decade or anyone with previous felony convictions.

Which is all well and good, except for one question: Why are they doing this? Do they have evidence the rest of us haven't seen that former drug users are abusing the state welfare rolls? (Neither Latvala immediately replied to messages from New Times about their bills.)

Update: Chris Latvala later responded to New Times, and his reason for sponsoring the bill is unexpected. Latvala says the plan was actually proposed by high-school kids.

"For the past two years, I have saved a bill slot for my "Ought to be a Law" competition. I hold a competition with high-school students in my district and sponsor a bill on behalf of the winners," Latvala says. "This bill was the winning idea this year, and it came from students at Clearwater High School."

Nationally, there's plenty of evidence that welfare abuse isn't much of a problem. A study two years ago of seven states with welfare drug-testing rules showed that the tests were turning up almost no abusers. Even though the national drug-use rate among average citizens is around 10 percent, less than 1 percent of welfare recipients failed tests in the majority of those states; in one, the failure rate was an eye-popping .002 percent.

Yet those states spent millions of dollars organizing and running those programs.

Florida's own mandatory-drug-testing history is no less sketchy. When he took office, Scott was enthusiastic about combing through urine samples from as many state residents as possible; he ordered mandatory drug testing of both state employees and welfare recipients.

But courts eventually threw out both rules, in part because there was so little evident problem that the testing constituted an unreasonable search. In other words: There was zero evidence that welfare recipients were using drugs any more often than people who weren't on welfare.

“The state has not demonstrated a more prevalent, unique, or different drug problem among TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] applicants than in the general population,” the court wrote in its decision.

Previous tests of state employees, meanwhile, had yielded less than a 1 percent failure rate, meaning forcing the other 99 percent of workers to submit to tests wasn't exactly fair.

The Latlavas' rules would affect a narrower range of recipients and might even survive court challenges — but taxpayers would still be on the hook for millions of dollars to solve a problem that, by most actual measures, doesn't seem to exist.

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