Minnesota counties are scrambling to enforce the new law for random screening.
A new state law designed to prevent drug users from receiving welfare benefits could end up costing taxpayers far more than it saves, while inadvertently denying assistance to poor families simply because they are unable to comply with its complex paperwork.
Like a recent wave of drug-testing laws passed in other states, Minnesota’s legislation was touted as a way to encourage greater responsibility among welfare recipients while saving taxpayers money.
But many county officials and advocacy groups say the reality is quite different: The law contains a bevy of costly local mandates and complicated rules that apply to just a tiny fraction of the 167,000 Minnesotans receiving welfare and other cash benefits.
Critics also say the policy is based on the false perception that large numbers of welfare recipients are using illegal drugs. A new analysis by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) found that participants in Minnesota’s welfare program for low-income families are actually far less likely to have felony drug convictions than the adult population as a whole.
“I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that this is about saving taxpayers money,” said Heidi Welsch, director of family support and assistance for Olmsted County. “This is punitive.”
Here and there in other states, judges have raised constitutional questions about broad drug-testing laws for the poor, but lawmakers across the country have not abandoned the concept.
In 2013 alone, at least 30 states proposed bills related to drug screening and testing, with some even extending it to federal benefits such as unemployment insurance, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. The laws have been supported by the influential American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a business-backed group that crafts model bills on hundreds of issues for its network of state legislators.
“It’s easy for laws like this to get traction, because no one wants to appear like they’re going easy on drug offenders,” said state Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester.
There was little debate in the Minnesota Legislature last year when random drug testing was added as an amendment to an omnibus health and human services bill. The bill, which passed the Republican-led state Senate in 2012, mandated sharing of information between courts and DHS to identify people with felony drug convictions who are receiving welfare and other cash benefits. And it required these individuals to submit to random drug tests under certain conditions.
A number of organizations that advocate for low-income families say they were not aware of the discussion until after Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill.
Now, counties across the state are scrambling to enforce the rules. Since September, nearly 2,800 people with felony drug convictions participating in state benefit programs have received written notices saying they could be subject to random drug tests. Those who fail to submit to a test when requested by their home counties, or who test positive for an illegal drug, could see their benefits reduced or eliminated.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, the Republican who sponsored the legislation, said he was motivated by reports that people in his hometown of Mazeppa (population 842) were using state welfare benefits to buy drugs.
“The question is, ‘What is happening to our dollars?’ ” Drazkowski asked. “Are the dollars going into someone’s veins? Or to the kids? Drug testing addresses that.”
But DHS data suggest that only a small fraction of people receiving state benefits actually have felony drug convictions in the past 10 years and could be subject to the random drug tests.
Just 0.4 percent of participants in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s main cash welfare program, have felony drug convictions, DHS records show. That compares with 1.2 percent of the state’s adult population as a whole.
Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, called the law “mean-spirited.” He said the civil rights group is monitoring its implementation.
“Frankly, I think everyone on welfare should be forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A,’ ” Samuelson said with a touch of sarcasm. “And failure to wear it should be punishable with 10 years in jail. That’s where we’re headed with these laws.”
For many county governments across Minnesota, the law has become a logistical headache. As with many state mandates, counties were required to enforce the law but were given no additional money and little guidance from the state.
Some county officials say the cost of identifying, contacting and testing a tiny number of convicted drug felons will exceed the savings from terminating benefits for the few who fail the drug tests.
In some rural jurisdictions, such as Freeborn and Wadena counties, fewer than a dozen drug felons are subject to random testing under the law, according to state records. Even so, each county must develop protocols for contacting them and administering regular tests.
“This just takes away that much time that we could be working to get benefits out to people faster,” said Welsch, Olmsted County’s director of family support and assistance.
Already, some people are starting to lose their benefits — not because they failed a drug test but because of paperwork burdens.
People receiving General Assistance (GA), a state program that provides monthly cash benefits to about 22,000 adults who are unable to work, now must prove that they are participating in drug treatment, or have successfully completed treatment or have been assessed by the county as not needing treatment. The rule applies only to program recipients who have completed a drug felony sentence within the past five years.
Olmsted County recently terminated benefits for two people because they failed to meet the program’s requirements. St. Louis County says it has terminated benefits for “at least three people.” Hennepin County expects to send out letters in January, which means that some people could start losing benefits as early as February.
One hitch is that many of the people affected by the law may never receive their legal notices because they are homeless or live in transitional housing, according to Kathleen Davis, supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. Others, she said, may no longer have the documents to prove they completed treatment.
Davis said her office got benefits reinstated for two individuals who had been improperly terminated. “This will have serious ramifications,” Davis said. “A lot of people will lose their benefits before they ever get to the random drug testing, because they aren’t able to satisfactorily prove that they meet the criteria.”
Another headache for counties is determining how to conduct random drug tests. Some counties have decided that “random” means selecting a random sample of convicted drug felons, while others have decided to test everyone with a felony drug conviction but at random times.
“There is considerable time and energy going into implementing this [law] that will affect very few people,” said Monty Martin, director of Ramsey County Community Human Services. “And we may never know the long-term implications of denying benefits to people who may be chemically dependent.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308