Maine Gov. Paul LePage announced Wednesday that the state will soon begin drug testing convicted drug felons who apply for or receive federal welfare benefits.

The drug testing was authorized by a law change that passed in 2011 as part of a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, but it was never implemented.

According to a press release from the Governor’s Office, the Department of Health and Human Services has spent several months designing a drug-testing program that will ensure privacy and fairness, while reinforcing accountability and integrity in the program.

Tests will be required of drug felons who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a federal program administered as a block grant in each state.

“Maine people expect their tax dollars to be spent supporting our most vulnerable citizens – children, the elderly and the disabled,” LePage said in a statement. “We must ensure that our tax dollars do not enable the continuation of a drug addiction. TANF is a short-term benefit that assists families and children with the basic necessities. If someone tests positive for drugs, they are clearly putting their addiction ahead of their family’s needs.

Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the rule change has actually been in place since 2011 and he criticized the governor for only now enforcing it in an election year during which LePage has made welfare his signature issue.

“This law has been on the books for years, yet LePage hasn’t enforced it,” Eves said. “We need leaders who are serious about solving problems and enforcing the law, not simply scoring political points in an election year at a time when Maine’s economy is lagging.”

LePage and his Republican allies in the Legislature tried to push legislation that would institute random drug testing for all welfare recipients but were not successful.

Democrats opposed the measures, saying random drug testing is just another way to demonize welfare recipients. Additionally, TANF recipients are overwhelmingly children.

Testing for drug felons, as opposed to random testing of all welfare recipients, was seen as a compromise and was included in a budget bill in 2011. The provision went into effect that year but evidently has not been enforced.

In June, the most recent month the state had TANF data, there were 7,119 cases and 11,588 children receiving benefits. It was not known Wednesday how many of those recipients would be subjected to drug testing under the rule change.

Maine among 11 states

Since TANF was created in 1996, many states have proposed drug testing, something that is allowed under the federal law but is left to states to craft their own language.

Currently, 11 states have some form of drug testing for TANF recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but many other states have tried and failed in the last few years to pass legislation. The states that have laws either have language that allows testing for recipients if there is reasonable suspicion that they might be drug users or make applicants fill out a questionnaire designed to gauge whether they are a drug user.

Random drug-testing laws have faced constitutional challenges in some states, including Florida, where a law was struck down earlier this year.

One of the biggest advocates for Florida’s drug-testing initiative was Tarren Bragdon, CEO of a nonprofit conservative group called the Foundation for Government Accountability. Bragdon was the former director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center and a member of LePage’s transition team after he was elected.

The law change in Maine still needs to go through a rule-making process, which requires a public hearing, but DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a statement that the state’s proposed rules align with federal law.

Under the proposed rules, anyone who applies for TANF must disclose whether they have a prior felony drug conviction. If they do, they will be tested.

If a person tests positive, he or she will have the option to be tested a second time. At any time, an individual can avoid termination of benefits by enrolling in an approved and appropriate substance abuse program.

Michaud, Cutler back drug tests

Both of LePage’s opponents in the governor’s race, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, said they support testing for drug felons.

“Mike supports this approach and thinks that the focus on drug treatment is correct,” said Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman, Lizzy Reinholt. “This has been Maine law since 2011, and it’s clear that Gov. LePage is either incapable of following the law or has delayed implementation for political expediency in an election year. His inaction on this issue is another example of why Maine needs an Inspector General to ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services is doing its job and enforcing the law.”

Said Cutler: “This is simply implementing what the current law requires, and I support that law and the policy behind it. Maine’s next governor also has a responsibility – which LePage has failed to meet – to make sure that there are sufficient treatment programs and resources in Maine to help those who fail the test. Throwing addicted Mainers into our jails and prisons isn’t the answer.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine rejected drug testing as an affront to the 4th Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Executive Director Alison Beyea said the governor has not said who will shoulder the costs of implementing the drug tests and she also worried about privacy concerns for those who are tested.

“The governor should be focused on policies that help Maine families, not yanking out the safety net and depriving them of food,” said Beyea. “If we truly want to combat drug addiction, we should fund more drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to much needed assistance.”

 Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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