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Georgia to delay welfare drug test law

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA (MCT) — As a new state law to drug-test welfare recipients went into effect Tuesday, state officials said they will delay enforcing it, even as opponents were girding to sue.

With the passage this spring of House Bill 772, the Georgia Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal approved the nation’s hardest-hitting law that calls for drug tests on recipients of poverty aid.

But a spokesman for Deal, Brian Robinson, on Tuesday told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the state will hold off on implementing HB 772 until a federal appeals court rules on a related Florida case, so as not to waste money on a legal fight.

It is unclear how much a ruling in Florida would affect Georgia’s effort because the Georgia law, once very similar to Florida’s, is now different.

Some critics said the delay is legally senseless and raised again the possibility that the law is just political grandstanding on the backs of the poor. Others disagreed. State officials said they are just defending taxpayers.

A separate part of Georgia’s law, which would have applied drug tests to food stamp recipients, has already been thrown out. The part of the law that applies to the state’s 16,000 welfare recipients has not.

In any case, lawyers at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who oppose the Georgia drug-testing law, are gathering legal research in preparation for action. Gerry Weber, an SCHR attorney, said he highly doubted the state could write guidelines that would make the law palatable, “but anything’s possible.”

Jason Williamson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York who tracks such laws throughout the country, said the Florida case is no longer relevant to Georgia, and Gov. Deal’s reason for not implementing the law right away smacks of avoidance, or political posturing.

Georgia in 2012 did have a law similar to Florida’s. So when courts smacked down Florida’s program, it was about the same as smacking down Georgia’s 2012 law.

But based on that experience, the Georgia Legislature went back and rewrote the law in 2014. Instead of attempting to test every welfare recipient, Georgia’s new law has a screen for reasonable suspicion. Arguments now may turn on whether it’s a reasonable screen.

Weber, however, said there was logic to the delay, as there are additional issues in the Florida case that could be relevant in Georgia.

Linda Lowe, who lobbied in vain against the bill on behalf of the group Families First, still waits on tenterhooks.

“People are already struggling when they go to apply for (welfare),” she said, noting that the maximum benefit for a family of three was $280 per month. “Having to come up with the money for a drug test and not get reimbursed is a special problem. They’re already in desperate straits.”

Robinson said such details as making poor people pay for their drug tests even if they test clean were the work of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, not Deal. But he defended the “overall principle.”

“Gov. Deal signed the bill because he believes taxpayers who foot the bill for these programs should have some assurance that the recipients are work-ready, and that taxpayers don’t have the responsibility to fund a lifestyle that makes you unemployable,” Robinson said.