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Florida pays back thousands after drug testing struck down

By Kathleen Haughney, Sun Sentinel –

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— It was one of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s headline-grabbing campaign vows: Welfare recipients would have to pass a drug test to make sure addicts weren’t receiving Floridians’ tax dollars.

But data now available from the state show that when a federal court temporarily suspended the law, the state had to pay out thousands of dollars to people regardless of whether they even took or passed a drug test.

According to data given to the Sun-Sentinel, the state had to reimburse welfare applicants $113,037 for the cost of the test, regardless of whether they passed it or not. And then, they had to pay out just shy of $595,000 in retroactive benefits to families who were initially denied welfare because they either failed the test or refused to take it.

The state already had the money budgeted though, knowing a court challenge to the law was likely.

“It was included in the budget and required no maneuvering or extra spending,” said Joe Follick, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, which administers welfare.

Follick would not comment further on the issue because of pending litigation.

In September 2011, a University of Central Florida student, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, sued the state over the new law mandating drug testing of all welfare applicants.

A little more than a month after the suit was filed, a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the drug testing. A bench trial is scheduled for March 2013 before U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven. An appeal to the injunction has also been filed in appeals court in Atlanta.

The numbers came as part of a public record request made by the ACLU, which provided it to the Sun-Sentinel.

In addition, the Department of Children and Families reported that 108 people tested positive for drugs, while 3,936 adults showed no sign of drugs in their system. Another 2,306 people opted not to take the drug test, though DCF did not survey people to ask why they were opting not to take the test, so there is no data to show whether those people objected to the policy or had obtained employment and therefore canceled their application.

The information will likely be a key part of the ACLU’s argument to the public that drug testing welfare recipients is ineffective. The group has long argued that the data would show that welfare applications were not largely drug users.

“Apparently, the alleged fiscal conservative Gov. Rick Scott has been willing to spend whatever it takes (experts, lawyers, reimbursements), not to address a documented problem, but to fulfill a campaign pledge — and one in which he shamelessly exploited an ugly stereotype about poor people and people temporarily out of work,” ACLU executive director Howard Simon said in an e-mail. “Not only did the preliminary injunction stop the wholesale violation of Floridians’ Fourth Amendment rights: for hundreds, if not thousands of Florida families, the Preliminary Injunction made the difference between paying the rent or going homeless.”

Scott has been a stalwart supporter, as a candidate and now as governor, of drug testing for welfare recipients and state employees.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Florida’s legal challenge is being closely watched by other states.

According to the National Conference for State Legislatures, Florida was one of three states in 2011 to put a drug-testing-for-public-assistance statute on the books. Twenty-eight states in 2012 proposed similar measures and four states – Utah, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma – all passed measures to do so.

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