As a state legislator, part of my job is to ensure that state resources are spent in a responsible and efficient manner. That’s why I was so disappointed that Assembly Republicans passed a bill that will expand the government’s program to drug test welfare recipients. This legislation is nothing but bad policy for Wisconsin’s taxpayers.
From 2014 to 2015, states that passed similar laws spent nearly $2 million on drug testing and found only about 700 positive cases out of the hundreds of thousands of people who received benefits. In fact, in several states they found less than five individuals who tested positive, including Michigan in 2016, where their pilot program didn’t net a single person.
So why doesn’t it work? Two reasons. First, people who are struggling to make ends meet, especially those with children, are more concerned about buying food and keeping the lights on than buying drugs. Despite Republicans' best attempt to stigmatize poor folks as drug-addicted deviants, the proof is in the numbers: Welfare recipients use drugs at significantly lower levels than the general public.
Second, there isn’t a good way to determine whether to drug test a welfare recipient. Florida tried testing everyone but their program was quickly swatted down by the court and had to pay $600,000 in unpaid benefits and penalties. That’s because the Fourth Amendment guarantees every American the right to be secure in their person against unreasonable searches and seizures no matter which side of the poverty line they fall on. Alternatively, states have tried using questionnaires to determine who to test, but even that is a legal gray area.
With this new bill, Wisconsin Republicans attempt to sidestep this question by eliminating the questionnaire and allowing the Department of Children and Families to pass their own rules to determine when to pursue drug testing — but who knows what’s going to come out of the rulemaking process or if it’ll be constitutional. Ultimately, Wisconsin is about to spend a quarter-million of your tax dollars on a program that doesn’t work and could lead to significant legal expenses.
The bill also mandates drug abuse treatment, but is that practical when the majority of positive tests are for marijuana users? With nearly 60 percent of Wisconsinites supporting the treatment of marijuana like alcohol, do we really want to use taxpayer money to send marijuana users to drug treatment? I would prefer to see those resources go toward those suffering from opioid addiction or alcoholism.
Having listened to my Republican colleagues explain why they support the bill, I’m left struggling to understand their logic. Whether the bill is meant to, as they claim, save public resources or help individuals dealing with a drug addiction or ensure that those who receive government resources use them responsibly, then wouldn’t it make sense to test everyone who receives public funds? I’m sure there are many corporate executives who receive a lot of taxpayer dollars through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation who would similarly “benefit” from having to submit to drug testing. Or how about the legislators themselves?
I would also like to note how strange it is that this policy comes from the party of small government. When the legislation first came across my desk, I instantly thought of the uber-conservative and ever-unreasonable Grover Norquist. He once quipped that he doesn’t want to abolish the government, he just wants it small enough that he could drown it in a bathtub. Setting aside how weird it is to joke about drowning something in a bathtub, Norquist is at least honest about his principles when it comes to limited government. What Assembly Republicans passed last week isn’t bathtub-sized government; it's government that lives in your bathroom, tapping its foot impatiently waiting for you to get over your bladder shyness.
To sum it up, this legislation is bad news for everyone. It’s a big brother-esque government mandate that is likely unconstitutional and will burn through taxpayer dollars while doing little to help people who are already suffering other than by embarrassing and stigmatizing them. Let’s hope the Wisconsin Senate does the right thing by burying this legislation and eliminating this drug-testing program.
Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, represents the 47th Assembly District of the Wisconsin Assembly.
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