Georgia governor considering drug tests for food stamps

ATLANTA -- Governor Nathan Deal is considering whether to sign a controversial bill that passed the legislature last week, the bill that would require certain food stamp applicants to pass a drug test.

The feds have already warned the state that the drug testing would be illegal.

It was Thursday, March 20, during the final hours of this year's legislative session, when the Republican majority in the legislature passed House Bill 772, the controversial plan to require food stamp applicants to prove that they're not using illegal drugs.

It would be up to the case worker to decide whether to order an applicant to submit to a drug test. Any case worker who has a "reasonable suspicion" that the applicant is using illegal drugs would have the power to order the drug test.

But on March 7, Robert Caskey, who is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program ("SNAP") in Atlanta, emailed the state with what was essentially a warning -- do not pass the bill, it is illegal under federal law:

"The addition of a drug testing provision of any type is prohibited" in the food stamp program, he wrote.

Gerry Weber, Senior Counsel with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said Wednesday that if the governor now signs the bill into law, Georgia may be sued, and could end up in the courts spending, perhaps, millions of dollars, only to lose the case.

"It may endanger the food stamp program here in Georgia," Weber said.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Greg Morris, (R) Vidalia, told 11Alive News over the phone from Vidalia Wednesday, "I would anticipate a court challenge." And he said "Entitlements are out of control.... We have a moral obligation to spend tax money wisely, and taxpayers cannot subsidize drug use."

Rep. Morris said there is no way of knowing, if the law were implemented, whether it is needed -- no way of knowing, in advance, how many food stamp recipients in Georgia are on drugs. "Put the law into effect and we'll find out."

No other state has a drug testing law for food stamp applicants.

"The smart thing for the state to do," Weber said, "is not be the guinea pig on drug testing laws. We would be the first state, we would pay all the legal bills if we lost, and we would endanger our food stamp program. Why not let another state try it, see if it works, and then we consider it from there?"

Florida had a pilot program and decided it wasn't worth it, because, Weber said, only a small percentage of the food stamp applicants was on drugs -- a far smaller percentage than is found in the population in general -- and the cost of the testing was so expensive the state decided that the taxpayers' overall costs of the program outweighed the minimal benefits.

Governor Deal has until early May to decide whether he will sign or veto the Georgia legislation.


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