Senate abruptly adjourns during debate over drug testing of certain public assistance recipients

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Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston (center), seen here on May 20, 2013, moved to adjourn the Senate Tuesday during a debate over a bill requiring drug testing of certain public assistance recipients. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston (center), seen here on May 20, 2013, moved to adjourn the Senate Tuesday during a debate over a bill requiring drug testing of certain public assistance recipients. (Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman)

The Senate abruptly adjourned Tuesday afternoon in the middle of a debate over a bill requiring drug testing of public assistance applicants with prior drug convictions.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who moved for the adjournment, said after Tuesday’s session that he understood amendments to the legislation — one of several public assistance bills that were scheduled to be considered by the body — were coming which few members knew about. Marsh said he hoped to meet with GOP members tomorrow to discuss the amendments and bring the body to order.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, would have required applicants for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to submit to drug tests if there was “reasonable suspicion” that they were doing drugs. The bill defines reasonable suspicion as a previous failure on a drug test, or a conviction for drug use or distribution within the previous five years.

“I had worked with several members and had dialogue with them,” said Pittman, who said on the floor he had tried marijuana in the past. “I think people who really understand this bill understand that it’s an attempt to help people give up drugs, and to change their situation.”

However, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who planned a filibuster on the bill, said the legislation assumed those who receive public assistance were on drugs — an assertion Pittman firmly rejected — and that it testing unfairly singled out poorer individuals. At one point, Singleton called for drug testing of lawmakers, lobbyists and Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, who presides over the Senate.

“You are not going to stop the drug epidemic in America testing mothers on public assistance,” Singleton said.

Pittman, who has introduced a bill to require drug testing of lawmakers, said he was trying to “create a fair process so we can help people with a drug problem get off drugs.”

The bill would require the department to pay for the initial drug screening; subsequent tests would be the responsibility of the individual. The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates the cost of the tests at between $15 to $40 per kit; a larger number from the Department of Human Resources, which administers the most anti-poverty programs in the state, was not immediately available.

Other bills that were due for consideration included:

– SB 87, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, which would forbid DHR from seeking waivers requiring able-bodied adults without dependents receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to work at least 20 hours a week. The federal stimulus bill in 2009 allowed states to receive waivers from the requirements, and a number of states, including Alabama, applied for the waivers. The farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year also eliminates statewide waivers from workforce requirements in times of economic duress, though local waivers would still be possible.

DHR opposes the legislation. Barry Spear, a spokesman for the department, said the legislation would prevent the department from seeking waivers for counties that may have high unemployment rates, or may have experienced natural disasters that prevent return to work.

“If tornadoes came through and destroyed a (work) facility, we’d have to wait for the Legislature to come back in to request those waivers,” he said.

– SB 114, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which would make it a crime to fraudulently obtain public assistance. Fraudulently obtaining assistance worth less than $200 would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,000. Fraud worth more than $200 would be a Class C Felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

DHR supports the bill; Spear said said the department “wants (only) people eligible for those benefits to use those benefits.”

– SB 115, sponsored by Orr, which would require a TANF applicant to apply for at least three jobs before completing an application, and three jobs for each week the applicant receives welfare. Those who voluntarily quit their jobs would also be ineligible for public assistance.

– SB 116, sponsored by Orr, which would ban recipients of public assistance from using benefits to purchase alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets. The bill also specifically prohibits the spending benefits in bars, casinos, psychic parlors and strip clubs.

In the last report available, DHR reported a monthly average of 21,960 cases of recipients receiving financial assistance in the 2012 fiscal year. The average monthly payment was $188.38 per case. Over 411,000 households that year received SNAP benefits, representing 910,244 recipients. The vast majority of those — 775,813 — were non-public assistance recipients.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday how widespread public assistance spending on alcohol, casinos and strip clubs was.

“The only way we would have any knowledge of that is if someone sent a personal complaint,” said Barry Spear, a spokesman for DHR. “We don’t have any way to track how they spend their money. It’s a cash benefit.”

The department opposes the bill. Federal guidelines limit administrative spending of TANF funds to 15 percent of total funds; Spear said the department is “very close” to that cap and would get pushed over if it had to administer those restrictions.

“If something puts us over that 15 percent, we’ll have to pay from state funds, which we don’t have.”

One thought on “Senate abruptly adjourns during debate over drug testing of certain public assistance recipients

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