Neb. bill would tie welfare benefits to drug tests

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — People who want welfare benefits in Nebraska might have to start passing drug tests to qualify for government assistance if the Legislature approves a bill introduced Thursday.

Similar measures were considered last year in at least 22 other states, but none of those passed because of concerns about costs and possible court challenges.

Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen’s bill would require the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to develop a plan to test welfare recipients and applicants for drugs. Anyone who tests positive would lose benefits for one year.

Janssen said he thinks the measure would help make sure that welfare benefits are helping people improve their lives instead of just providing handouts.

“When a taxpayer gives assistance to somebody, it’s assistance so they can get back up on their feet,” Janssen said. “It’s kind of a slap in the face to the taxpayers when they say, ‘We’re going to get up on our feet while we’re doing drugs.'”

Janssen acknowledged that the cost of creating such a drug-screening program would likely make it difficult to pass the bill this year, with the state facing tough economic times. But he said the measure might save the state money in the long term.

“This is part of our budget woes … paying people who aren’t truly trying to rehabilitate themselves and get off the state welfare system,” he said. “But the short-term cost right now is probably going to be overwhelming.”

A potential court challenge could be another concern.

The congressional overhaul of welfare in the 1990s authorized states to implement drug testing as a condition of receiving help. But the only state that has adopted such a measure, Michigan, had the law thrown out by a federal judge because it allowed for random testing without justification. The judge ruled that Michigan’s law violated constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

“You have to be fairly savvy about designing a program that will withstand constitutional challenge,” said Christine Nelson, a program manager with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nelson said Janssen’s proposal is one that appeals to many lawmakers who hear complaints from constituents, and she expects several states to consider it this year.

Nearly 320,000 recipients of government assistance in Nebraska could be affected by Janssen’s bill. That figure includes some individuals and some households and about 224,000 Nebraska residents eligible for Medicaid assistance.

Janssen did not say how many welfare recipients he thinks might be using drugs.

Department of Health and Human Services officials declined to comment on the proposal.