Maine’s Republican Governor Paul LePage is backing a bill currently being debated in the state’s House of Representatives that would compel all applicants to welfare programs to undergo drug tests, and ban those convicted of a drug felony from accessing welfare.
The reform would require all applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps programs to fill out a 93-question screening test. Based on the results of this procedure, the authorities would send suspected drug users for a urine test. Such screenings have already been carried out on people with past drug convictions since February.
"We have long believed that this is an appropriate path to take to ensure that the benefits are being used to support families on their pathway out of poverty and to ensure appropriate use of taxpayer dollars," Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew commented to AP.
Democrats disagree, and on May 20, they used their majority on the House Health and Human Services Committee to defeat the bill in a 6-5 vote, the Bangor Daily News reported.
“Much of the larger conversation on welfare reform is driven by the need for fiscal responsibility,” Democrat Rep. Drew Gattine, who co-chairs the committee, explained to the Daily News. “We know measures like these are both very expensive and very ineffective. Let’s concentrate on responsible use of taxpayer dollars and true reform that puts people on the path to independence. There are far better ways to discourage drug use.”
Gattine and fellow Democrats also pointed out that according to Think Progress, the rate of drug use among welfare applicants is lower than the general population.
The rejection of the bill by the committee does not necessarily mean that it is dead, with further debate on the floor of the House expected.
A Republican amendment to the bill was presented which would allow those with previous drug convictions to undergo the drug tests like everyone else and still receive welfare if they successfully pass.
The proposed reform has also triggered controversy outside the legislature.
The creators of the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI), which is the tool authorities would use to carry out initial screenings, spoke out against the use of its system to deny access to welfare.
"When public assistance is made contingent on participation in the assessment and treatment process, it increases the risk for violations of ethical principles and applicants' rights,” the SASSI Institute warned.
Since 2011, 12 states have adopted drug testing for their welfare programs, and at least another 16 are to do so this year, the Huffington Post reported.