Ohio Senate wants welfare tied to clean drug tests

JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A pilot program that would tie welfare benefits to clean drug tests is making its way through the Ohio Senate, amid criticism that a recent change to the state's constitution makes the experiment illegal.

The Senate Finance Committee set a Wednesday morning vote on a provision allowing three Ohio counties to volunteer to administer drug tests to prospective welfare recipients, as a test run for taking the plan statewide.

It's among dozens of Senate changes to Gov. John Kasich's midterm budget bill, on which a floor vote is expected later Wednesday.

State Sen. Tim Schaffer, the author of the welfare provision, said its wording avoids legal roadblocks encountered in other states, more than two dozen of which have introduced drug testing provisions this year.

That's in part by adding an element to the program allowing other family members to take custody of the benefit payments of the individual who tests positive.

"We want to make sure we're putting shirts on backs, food on the table, and shoes on the feet," he said. "There's no reason why the innocent members of a family should suffer because of what one drug user or abuser is doing in that family."

Janetta King president and CEO of Innovation Ohio, a liberal think tank, argued Tuesday that the drug-testing program violates a section added to the Ohio constitution by voters last year.

The Healthcare Freedom Amendment, approved with 66 percent of the vote, was intended foremost as a reaction to a federal health care overhaul backed by President Barack Obama.

But the issue was broadly worded. It banned laws that compel participation in a "health care system" -- which it defined to include programs that enroll, manage or process individuals for health insurance, health care data or health care information purposes.

"This is a new wrinkle for them," said King. "This (drug testing program) is processing health care information." The budget amendment requires drug testing data to be gathered and reported to the administration and Legislature as they consider an expansion to more areas of the state.

The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the state's changes wouldn't insulate the provision from a legal challenge -- urging lawmakers to reject it, or Kasich to veto it if it makes it to his desk.

Maurice Thompson, whose 1851 Center for Constitutional Law backed the health care amendment, disagreed that it would preclude drug testing of welfare recipients.

He said Ohioans are not compelled to participate in the welfare program, so he views the drug tests as "a trade-off to receive a benefit."

"You're not compelled to reach out and grab welfare benefits. Even if you're dying on the street, you can still go do something else rather than get those benefits," Thompson said. "If you were forced to receive those benefits against your will, or against your choice, then that would be compulsion."

Opponents said it places an undue burden on the poor. Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, said some families could be forced to pawn family heirlooms or sell blood plasma to pay for mandatory drug tests.

"I'm afraid this bill is based on a myth which portrays public assistance recipients as making a living on the government dime and using our taxpayer dollars to buy drugs," she testified. She said drug testing programs in other states have not turned up such a pattern, yet have cost government more in some cases than the benefits they're designed to safeguard.

Thompson noted that a Colorado court ruled that access to public assistance is a constitutional right along due process grounds -- "so I suppose an inventive left-wing group could use that case to scrape together an argument and fight this."

Schaffer said his office reviewed the constitutional amendment and sees no conflict.

Another Senate addition to the budget bill would relax driver's education requirements for Ohio teenagers, allowing them to take the classroom portion of the course online instead of in a classroom.

Teens younger than 18 currently are required to have 24 hours in the classroom and eight hours behind the wheel with instructors. Allowing online courses in place of classroom work is intended to offer families a cheaper, more flexible alternative to traditional driver's education.

Driving schools opposed to the change say it would hurt their business and allow teens to do the online work with little oversight, creating more opportunity for cheating. The proposal comes as another bill banning texting by teen drivers cleared the Ohio House on Tuesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association says 15 of the 26 states that require teen driver education allow online training.