Minnesota counties, DFLers challenge welfare drug tests

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2014 - 10:13 PM

A DFL legislator proposes overturning the 2012 law, while county officials tell a hearing that the cost is big while the problem is small.


“We are concerned that we may not be getting the bang for the buck that we want,” Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter testified.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune,

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A controversial law mandating drug tests for welfare recipients could be scrapped — just months after thousands of Minnesotans discovered they might have to submit urine samples to keep their government benefits.

A coalition of DFL legislators, county officials and anti-poverty advocates are pushing back against the 2012 law — passed when the Legislature was under Republican control — which requires counties to conduct random drug tests of welfare recipients who have been convicted of a drug felony in the past 10 years.

The idea was touted as a way to save taxpayer dollars and encourage personal responsibility. But county officials across the state say the cost of identifying drug felons and collecting urine samples likely would exceed any savings generated by kicking drug abusers off state cash assistance programs.

Since September, nearly 2,800 people with felony drug convictions statewide have received written notices saying they could be subject to the random tests.

At a Wednesday hearing at the Capitol, Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, proposed legislation that would effectively overturn the drug-testing mandate by giving counties discretion over whether to administer the tests.

“We are concerned that we may not be getting the bang for the buck that we want,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties and who testified in support of Moran’s bill. “Evidence suggests that drug testing [of welfare recipients] is fear-based, not future-based.”

A popular move

In recent years, more than two dozen states have considered drug testing for people receiving government benefits such as welfare, unemployment insurance and food stamps. Such measures have passed in at least nine states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Though a number now face court challenges, the measures are highly popular with voters. A 2011 survey by Rasmussen Reports, for example, found that 70 percent of likely voters said welfare recipients found to be using illegal drugs should have their benefits cut off.

“It resonates with people’s stereotype of welfare recipients taking advantage of the system,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in Washington.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who authored the 2012 legislation, said he was merely giving teeth to a law already on the books. Since 1997, enrollees in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s main cash welfare program, and General Assistance have been required to participate in drug testing to receive benefits. But the statute was not enforced because the state, counties and courts have not shared drug conviction information.

The 2012 law required agencies to share criminal information so the drug-testing statute could actually be enforced.

“Every truck driver in Minnesota has to be drug-tested to keep their [commercial driver’s] license,” Drazkowski said. “This is about holding people accountable and enforcing the law.”

But some county officials insist the drug-testing mandate applies to such a tiny sliver of the welfare population that it’s not worth the cost to administer.

Statewide, about 2,800 people receiving welfare and other forms of state cash assistance had drug felony convictions within the past 10 years and would be subject to the random tests. That represents just 1.6 percent of the 167,047 people participating in these programs as of August, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Costly mandate

In some rural parts of the state, counties must figure out how to administer tests for fewer than a dozen people. Many counties consider it an unfunded mandate, because the law gave them no additional money to conduct the tests.

In Chisago County, officials recently cross-checked a list of welfare recipients with drug felon data and found just one person subject to the rule. Yet the county has spent about $1,500 in staff time developing the proper protocol to test this lone individual.

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