Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 861 into law Monday.
Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, said the provisions of the Social Responsibility and Accountability Act are not too much to ask.
“We have a history and a policy in Georgia for making people accountable for government funds they receive,” he said. “I think it’s a fair stipulation that people asking for money for subsistence ought to be able to demonstrate they are not using it for drugs.”
The Georgia General Assembly votes on the measure fell mainly along party lines. However, all five members of Floyd County’s delegation — three Republicans and two Democrats — supported the final version of the bill.
Democrats criticizing the proposal said it’s an unfair burden on the poor, and Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights said the organization is prepared to file a lawsuit once it is put into practice.
“We are disappointed that the governor signed this and we believe that the state should await the outcome of Florida litigation involving the exact same drug testing scheme,” Weber said Monday. “It’s going to take a while for them to implement this. That would all have to happen before any lawsuit can be filed.”
Coomer said reports that Florida’s law netted a smaller percentage of drug-users than appear in the total population don’t prove the initiative is a failure. Rather, he said, it could have deterred drug-users from seeking benefits.
“This law is not about keeping people who need it from getting public assistance, it’s about being responsible with the very limited amount of resources we have,” Coomer said. “I think it helps not only the state to be more responsible with its funds, but it helps the person dealing with an addiction by motivating him to get help.”
State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said lawmakers worked to make sure the bill would pass muster with the courts and that Georgia’s law addresses concerns about privacy and illegal search and seizure raised in other states. Albers said Monday he is not worried about a legal challenge.
The state Department of Human Services is being directed to create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by welfare applicants.
Under the bill, those able to prove they are receiving Medicaid would pay a maximum of $17, and those without Medicaid would be responsible for the full cost of the drug test. Applicants who take the drug test at their own expense would be eligible for reimbursement if they test negative.
Applicants who test positive for drug use would be ineligible to receive benefits for a month. A second positive result would result in a three-month ineligibility period, and a third violation would prevent someone from applying for benefits for a year.
Applicants who fail a drug test must pass another one before reapplying.
The state agency would be required to provide individuals who test positive with a list of substance-abuse treatment providers in their area, but the agency would not be required to provide or pay for treatment.
Applicants who have been denied benefits for a year may reapply after six months if they can prove successful completion of a department-approved, substance-abuse treatment program.
Children under 18, physically or mentally handicapped individuals or those living in nursing or personal care homes are exempt from the drug-testing requirement to receive benefits.
Test results couldn’t be used to prosecute people, and test records must be destroyed in five years.
A similar law in Florida took effect last July but was blocked by a federal judge in October. At least two dozen states have proposed measures this year that would require drug tests for benefits.
About a quarter of the 19,200 eligible people who file new welfare applications annually could be tested in Georgia, according to state budget officials. The state expects about 17 percent a year to fail drug tests, a rate based on a 2007 federal study that examined drug use by people ages 18 to 25.
Albers said he expects the drug-testing mandate could generate at least $103,000 a year for the state, as drug users will either be unwilling to be tested, or be kicked off the welfare rolls after failing a drug test.
Courts have struck down similar laws in other states, although supporters in Georgia expressed confidence that the law here could withstand a legal challenge. Random drug testing is prohibited for constitutional reasons.
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined special exceptions to that, such as when a serious public need outweighs a person’s right to privacy. But exactly what falls within that exception can get murky.
Staff writer Diane Wagner contributed to the report