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Some recipients of public benefits, including Medicaid, unemployment and food stamps, would be required to undergo drug testing, under a budget proposal announced Thursday by Gov. Scott Walker.

The governor rolled out his “workforce readiness plan” Thursday ahead of the scheduled unveiling of his 2015-17 state budget proposal on Feb. 3.

The proposals announced Thursday are aimed at providing more workers for “high-need” fields such as manufacturing, Walker said. Drug testing could affect tens of thousands of Wisconsinites receiving benefits; those failing drug tests would be offered free drug treatment and job training, the governor said.

The governor did not say what would happen to those who refuse help, although Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, referred to sending a message to recipients to “get yourself productive and stop asking the taxpayers to help subsidize your lifestyle.”

Drug testing the unemployed would apply only for people “for whom suitable work is only available in certain occupations,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said. Information on which jobs or job seekers would be subject to drug testing was not immediately available. About 40,000 people currently receive unemployment benefits.

The budget also will include language seeking permission from the federal government to test all “able-bodied” adults without dependents on FoodShare, as well as all childless adults on Medicaid. Some broad-based programs in other states that tested all recipients have been halted after courts found them unconstitutional.

Roughly 480,000 adults receive FoodShare benefits. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services said the agency does not currently track the number of childless adults who use food stamps. The number of childless adults on BadgerCare, the state’s Medicaid-funded health insurance program for the poor, is roughly 141,000.

Patrick said the drug-testing program would cost the state some money but is expected to result in overall savings. She said specific cost estimates would be available Feb. 3.

The proposals announced Thursday also include reducing by one year the maximum time recipients could receive benefits under the state’s job training-and-welfare program, Wisconsin Works, also known as W-2. That change would save about $3 million over the two-year budget, Patrick said.

“We know employers in Wisconsin have jobs available, but they don’t have enough qualified employees to fill those positions,” Walker said in a statement.

“With this budget, we are addressing some of the barriers keeping people from achieving true freedom and prosperity and the independence that comes with having a good job and doing it well.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said the proposals are “more about making headlines than finding real solutions” from a governor mulling a presidential run in 2016.

“Rather than getting distracted by presidential posturing, we need to work together and find real solutions that will create jobs, grow our economy and put Wisconsin on a path to success,” Shilling said in a statement.

Initiatives outlined

The proposals for the two-year budget include:

Requiring drug testing of some people applying for or receiving benefits from programs including unemployment insurance, FoodShare, Medicaid, Transform Milwaukee, transitional jobs and others.

A freeze on technical college tuition for students pursuing high-need occupations.

Increasing funds for technical education scholarships for high school graduates taking career and technical education courses.

Reducing time spent on W-2 from 60 months to 48, to “encourage more rapid placement in jobs.”

Walker said the initiatives are aimed at helping job seekers qualify for the nearly 70,000 open positions posted on the Job Center of Wisconsin website. Wisconsin’s current unemployment rate is 5.2 percent, below the national rate of 5.6 percent.

Shilling said Walker’s proposals don’t address the need for more funding for technical schools.

“We continue to hear about technical college waiting lists that are preventing workers from getting the training they need to succeed in today’s workforce,” she said, “and Gov. Walker’s proposal fails to address these economic barriers.”

In a statement, Wisconsin Technical College System President Morna Foy said she looked forward to hearing more details about the proposals, adding, “I support the governor’s goals of increasing access to technical college education and addressing the skills gap.”

GOP support high

The governor’s proposals will be considered by a Legislature controlled by fellow Republicans. The leaders of the Joint Finance Committee welcomed them.

In a statement, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, called the initiatives “bold proposals to remove barriers that can block workers from good-paying, family-supporting jobs” and provide employers with “skilled workers for the jobs they need to fill.”

Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said, “We are currently reviewing the proposal and look forward to hearing more specifics as we move further along in the budget process.”

Programs requiring drug testing of public benefit recipients have faced hurdles in other states. Some state programs in which everyone receiving or applying for public benefits is drug tested have been slapped down as unconstitutional. More narrowly tailored programs testing only suspected drug users have resulted in few beneficiaries being dropped from welfare rolls.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Walker’s plan “will in some cases further hurt people striving to get to the middle class.”

“Our first priority should be restoring economic opportunity for all people,” he said.

But Vos said the drug-testing requirements should not be viewed as punitive.

“The one thing I do know is that most people who are on food stamps or welfare benefits, they want to work,” Vos said. “If you’re addicted to drugs, that’s one of the barriers to actually getting a meaningful job.”

State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.

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