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Law requiring random drug testing of certain welfare recipients will get another test

Rep. Rena Moran said she has the broad support of advocacy groups for those who are low-income, homeless, and/or who have mental-health or substance-use disorders.

Rep. Rena Moran plans to introduce a bill to modify a state law that mandates random drug testing of welfare recipients who have been recently convicted of a drug felony.
Courtesy of Minnesota House Public Information Services

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said this week that her first order of business for the 2014 legislative session will be to introduce a bill to modify a state law that mandates random drug testing of welfare recipients who have been recently convicted of a drug felony.

Rep. Rena Moran

The law has been on the books since 1997, but was buttressed with more enforcement powers in 2012 as part of the state’s Health and Human Services Omnibus Bill.

Moran said the law burdens an already stressed county welfare system, costs more time and money than it will save, concerns a fraction of welfare recipients, and encourages the general public to view welfare recipients through a “negative lens.”

“There are so many other and better ways to support families,” she said.

The law requires random testing of anyone who has had a felony drug conviction in the previous 10 years. For failing a drug test once, a recipient’s benefits are reduced by 30 percent. For failing a drug test twice, a recipient is permanently disqualified from receiving assistance for cash and food. The law applies to those receiving benefits under the state’s General Assistance, Minnesota Supplemental Aid, Diversionary Work, Minnesota Family Investment, and Work Participation Cash Benefit programs.

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Law strengthened in 2012

The law was strengthened in 2012 with a measure that requires data sharing about convicted drug felons between the state Corrections and Human Services departments.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who introduced the data-sharing bill, said he welcomes further debate of the law. “Bring it on,” he said. “My purpose was to get the government to do what the law was already instructing them to do. The role of county welfare officials is to follow the law, not to redefine it according to what they think is best.”

Rep. Steve Drazkowski

Drazkowski said his further purpose is to prevent welfare fraud, which he said is “huge” in his district. “We don’t want to see well-intended and generous welfare dollars that are intended for kids to be used for drugs instead,” he said. Any costs associated with drug testing, he said, “should be subtracted from any future welfare payments.”

According to the state Department of Human Services, there were 93,823 welfare cases in 2013, involving 167,047 people (including children). Of those, 2,700 people had been convicted of a drug felony in the previous 10 years. Further, of those, 71.4 percent had a chemical dependency diagnosis and 68.8 percent had a diagnosis of serious mental illness.

Advocacy groups support change

Moran said her proposal has the broad support of advocacy groups for those who are low-income, homeless, and/or who have mental-health or substance-use disorders.

“The problem is two-part,” said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project in Minnesota who is helping to craft changes to the law: “There is no funding for the testing, and no funding to help people get treatment if they were to test positive. This is not the way we treat people who are suffering from an illness – to try to make their lives worse.” In addition, she said, her organization has always had “serious constitutional concerns” about the law.

Moran said her proposed legislation will give counties discretionary powers by changing such words as “shall” and “must” to “may,” leaving it up to them to decide whether or not to impose drug testing. She said a draft will be ready by the pre-filing deadline of Monday, Jan. 13. No official action can be taken until the session begins on Tuesday, Feb. 25.