Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is going ahead with his plan to make Wisconsin the first state to drug test able-bodied adults applying for food stamps. Other states’ attempts to do so have been blocked by the federal government or found to be unconstitutional.
The Wisconsin legislature approved the plan more than two years ago, but it was thwarted by federal rules against adding eligibility criteria on food stamp recipients. The governor filed a federal lawsuit in 2015 seeking approval to test food stamp applicants, but it was rejected because then-President Barack Obama’s administration had not yet formally rejected the state’s request to do the testing.
In 2014, a drug test requirement imposed by the state of Florida was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court. According to the New York Times, 14 other states have limited drug testing for some state welfare benefits.
Last December, asked the incoming Trump administration to allow drug screening, but didn’t receive a response. Walker decided to proceed anyway, approving a rule change to require screening and sending it to the Republican-controlled Legislature for review. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor believes he has the authority to implement the rule.
The Legislature has four months to review the rule. It might take another year after that to begin screening, state officials said. They are anticipating lawsuits challenging the drug screening rule.
Under the plan, FoodShare (Wisconsin’s name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants without children who fail a drug test would be eligible for state-funded rehabilitation treatment if they don’t have any other way to pay for it.
The Walker administration estimated that only 0.3 percent of the program’s 67,400 yearly applicants would test positive for drugs.
The governor contends drug testing would be a way to funnel more drug-free workers into the job market. But advocacy groups who oppose his plan say it’s the wrong approach.
“The law clearly does not allow it,” Kevin Concannon, undersecretary at the federal Food and Nutrition Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Walker’s “office forwarded that request to us and it was very clear, we consulted the legal counsels here and the law absolutely does not allow it.”
“A major problem with the Governor’s drug testing plan is that it treats addiction as a moral failing rather than a disease,” says Jon Peacock, research director for Madison-based Kids Forward (formerly the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families).
“Also, the state will be spending scarce resources on screening and testing people for drug use, when that money could be far better spent on making effective treatment available to people who are already seeking help and are often unable to get it,” Peacock told The Influence.
Peacock says he believes the plan is “very likely” to go through, since it was approved by the legislature two years ago.
“What’s new now is that the statutory authority has been fleshed out in the form of administrative regulations, and the Governor has made it clear that he doesn’t plan to wait for a federal waiver. The legislature has an opportunity to object to the proposed rules, but since they approved the statutory authority, that’s highly unlikely.”
Several months ago, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services requested a waiver to make various changes to the state’s Medicaid program, Peacock notes. That waiver would allow the state to impose a number of requirements for childless adults to get Medicaid, including a drug screening and testing requirement.
“There was organized opposition to that waiver – with more than 1,000 comments submitted to DHS, and all but one comment was opposed.” Many of the critical comments came from people in the addiction treatment field, Peacock says.
Peacock says he’s not sure whether there will be an organized effort opposing the new rules relating to SNAP eligibility.
If the drug testing plan is implemented, it’s likely to face a legal challenge, Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee, told the Journal Sentinel. “As this moves forward we anticipate that the issue will be litigated, making it an expensive idea for taxpayers from the Badger State,” she said.