AUGUSTA — The LePage administration soon will begin drug testing some welfare applicants, implementing a compromise agreement it reached with the Legislature in 2011.

The federal government permits narrow drug testing of those applying for welfare benefits, and 11 other states have similar laws on the books. The rule requires that applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program who have been convicted of drug-related felonies be tested for drugs. Applicants who fail the test can choose to enroll in a substance-abuse program to avoid losing benefits.

The testing was part of a bipartisan agreement between the Le-Page administration and Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature in 2011, but it has taken years to craft the language on how it will be implemented.
Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, said drug testing coupled with treatment programs for those who fail tests is “reasonable.”

“If they come away with this getting the treatment they need, it will be beneficial,” he said.

Farnsworth says he will monitor the Republican administration to ensure it follows through on its promise that those who fail the tests will be enrolled in treatment programs.

It’s unclear how many people would be affected, but it could number in the hundreds, state officials have said. The program administers about 7,000 cases, with more than 11,000 children receiving benefits.
The number of families on TANF has declined in recent years, after the LePage administration instituted a 60-month cap on benefits.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew told The Associated Press that the department will begin the drug testing program, but couldn’t immediately say when the first tests will be administered.

The tests will cost $62 each, a spokesman for Mayhew said.

Advocates for the poor say that the initiative is a bad use of money, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has called it unconstitutional.

The ACLU of Maine plans to closely monitor the way the plan is implemented and will decide whether to file a lawsuit as it unfolds.

“It certainly has been something that the ACLU has litigated all over the country because it is so misguided,” said Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “This is a waste of state resource which could be better spent on many things.”

Federal law prohibits people from receiving welfare benefits if they have a prior drug felony conviction, but states can opt out of the ban, according to National Conference of State Legislatures. Maine is one of at least five states that allow those with prior convictions to receive benefits if they are drug tested, the group says.

States that have the laws either require recipients to be tested if there is reasonable suspicion they might be drug users or require applicants to fill out a questionnaire designed to gauge whether they use drugs.

Laws that have called for random drug testing have faced constitutional challenges in some states, including Florida, where a law was struck down in 2014.

LePage and his Republican allies in the Legislature failed in an attempt to pass legislation that would institute random drug testing for all welfare recipients.

Last year, when the program was closer to being implemented, LePage said that the state “must ensure that our tax dollars do not enable the continuation of a drug addiction.”

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