Florida governor defies fury of privacy advocates as he signs law forcing welfare recipients to have drugs tests
Florida’s Republican governor has invoked the fury of privacy advocates after signing into law a bill requiring welfare recipients to undergo drugs tests.
Rick Scott is already facing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida seeking to half a similar order mandating drug testing for state employees.
The ACLU has slammed the law as an ‘extreme overreach’ of his powers. Officials are considering a similar lawsuit over the welfare bill, which he signed into law yesterday.
But Mr Scott was defiant over the laws, proclaiming that taxpayers should not have to subsidize drug addiction.
‘While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction,’ he said.
‘This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars.’
Opponents have slammed the tests as a similar waste of taxpayers’ money, however.
Welfare applicants who test positive will not receive government help for a year, or until they undergo treatment.
Those who fail a second time will be banned from receiving public funds for three years.
If they are found to be drug free they will be reimbursed for the tests, according to the law.
The law is set to come into force by July 1.
It immediately drew an outcry from the ACLU.
‘The wasteful program created by this law subjects Floridians who are impacted by the economic downturn, as well as their families, to a humiliating search of their urine and body fluids without cause or even suspicion of drug abuse,’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
‘Searching the bodily fluids of those in need of assistance is a scientifically, fiscally, and constitutionally unsound policy. Today, that unsound policy is Florida law.’
The ACLU has already gone to court with Mr Scott over the drug testing of state employees.
Mr Scott ordered drug testing of new hires and spot checks of existing state employees under him in March and gave state agencies 60 days to decide how to implement the plan.
The state already has the power to test employees if they suspect drug abuse, but this order could apply to state employees regardless of suspicions.
‘This is a governor who is willing to use the power of government to intrude upon your rights in Florida,’ Mr Simon said.
‘The analysis of urine also tells a lot more about you that is nobody’s business,’ he said.
That includes whether an employee is pregnant, or taking heart, diabetes, depression or other medications.
The ACLU won a similar lawsuit on behalf of a Department of Juvenile Justice employee in 2004 after a federal judge said random testing without suspicion was unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Tallahassee determined the department was wrong to fire an office employee because he had no direct contact with children nor were there any safety reasons for the testing, such as carrying a gun or driving.
Judge Hinkle did not reinstate the employee but ordered mediation. The state settled with the former employee for $150,000.
The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed blanket suspicion-less drug testing only if ‘the risk to public safety is substantial and real.’
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of a union representing about 50,000 state employees and Richard Flamm, a 17-year state employee from St. Petersburg who works as a researcher for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
‘It’s kind of insulting that my boss, in essence the governor, is treating his staff like this,’ said Mr. Flamm. ‘It’s an egregious use of taxpayer money.’
Florida’s Constitution guarantees public employees the right to bargain, but it also prohibits them from striking, giving them little leverage.
An attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, said the governor’s office has not contacted them about the issue.
Critics say the tests could cost the state millions, creating unnecessary expenses while government budgets have been slashed.
‘We have a chief executive saying I want to put perhaps millions of dollars out of my state budget to pay for unnecessary, unconstitutional drug testing when he have an economic crisis, when we have budget slashes. It is disappointing,’ said Alma Gonzalez , an attorney for AFSCME.
The governor’s office could not provide an estimate on how much the testing may cost, saying they are still working out logistics.
‘If it makes good business sense for private sector companies to drug test their employees, why wouldn’t it make good business sense for the state,’ a spokesman said.
Agreements between private citizens and private companies are not protected under the same Constitutional rights as state employees, according to ACLU attorneys.