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Monday, April 16, 2012 - 2:00am

Deal To Sign Welfare Drug Test Bill

A state lawmaker who drafted a bill requiring drug tests for welfare applicants says Gov. Nathan Deal will sign it into law Monday. Sen. John Albers, a Roswell Republican, says the bill would save taxpayer money and deter fraud. But opponents say it largely targets low-income women, and some plan to file a lawsuit to stop the measure.

Under the bill, applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will have to pay for a drug test before receiving benefits.

Foes say that would mostly burden women with no extra money and no easy way to reach testing sites.

Silke Deeley runs the Liberty House domestic violence shelter in Albany. She says the drug testing facilities are few and far between, and the women she treats often don’t have cars.

“For a lot of them, they don’t [even] have drivers’ licenses," she said. "I mean, we’re talking rural Georgia. We’re the poorest in the area of services here in Southwest Georgia, and so consequently some of our clients are some of the poorest.”

She says the bill demands accountability of women who more often than not don't do drugs, but in the case of domestic violence, men are often not accountable for what they've done.

"The accountability is constantly on the women -- it's like re-victimizing them all over again," she said. "They've finally made the decision to leave an abusive husband and now they have to be abused by the system."

Other opponents say lawmakers' efforts to amend the bill so applicants can obtain swab saliva tests instead of costlier urine samples were probably in vain.

Linda Lowe, an Atlanta-based public policy advocate, says drug testing companies certified under the Federal Workplace Drug Testing program -- a standard cited in the bill -- probably won’t offer the cheaper swab saliva tests.

“They say they don’t provide saliva tests almost at all. They say they’re not reliable so instead they do urine tests or other types of tests that are even costlier,” she said.

But Albers, the bill’s sponsor, says even if applicants have to pay for the costlier urine samples, the amount is small.

“It could be $8 or $10 or $12 more, whatever it happens to be. I don’t think that’s that big of a difference. But we want to go with the best, easiest, least obtrusive, accurate model is, and I believe that’s the swab test but if it ends up being the urine analysis, I don’t think it’s that big a deal either way.”

Opponents plan to challenge the law in court. Judges have blocked similar efforts as unconstitutional violations of the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unlawful search. Even the General Assembly’s counsel says the bill may not be constitutional.

But Albers says the state’s attorney general has vetted it, and has the resources to defend the bill if someone files what he calls a "frivolous" lawsuit.

He says he worked with attorneys and consulted with experts in Florida, where a similar measure was blocked. And he says he thinks his bill will pass constitutional muster.

Brian Robinson, Gov. Deal's spokesman, has declined to comment on the welfare drug testing bill because it was not part of the Governor's legislative agenda.

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