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Georgia is proposing to drug test parents seeking welfare

Gov. Nathan Deal backed Georgia’s proposal to drug-test parents who seek welfare, pushing the state towards a legal confrontation with opponents over the new law’s fairness.

Deal signed House Bill 861 on Monday without ceremony. The bill will likely be challenged in court. The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights affirmed it was preparing a lawsuit as the state moved ahead with the mandate. The American Civil Liberties Union has also had issues with the bill, which was among several approved by Deal during the day.

The new drug-testing law requires parents who apply for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to pay for and pass a drug test that would cost at least $17. TANF provides temporary financial help to low-income families with children. Passing the drug test once would be a condition of eligibility to receive benefits.

Opponents argue that drug testing of welfare recipients violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. Supporters believe it will save the state money and promote personal responsibility.

“This program is intended as a safety net, and this requirement guarantees that the benefits are used for their intended purposes — to care for children and assist with job preparation,” Deal said.

The bill gained final passage March 29 in the state’s General Assembly, supported by a solid Republican majority on the last day of this year’s legislative session. Their approval came despite an ongoing legal challenge in Florida against a similar measure.

“We are disappointed the governor signed the bill, given an almost identical law in Florida has been declared unconstitutional,” said Gerry Weber, an SCHR attorney. The center intends to file its suit once the state begins testing TANF applicants, a process expected to take at least several weeks as officials figure out how to start and regulate the new program.

Florida was the first to pass a TANF drug-testing bill in 2011. A federal judge suspended it under a legal challenge that is currently before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven in her opinion said Florida operated a pilot program before implementing statewide testing. The pilot program showed fewer TANF applicants tested positive for drug use than those estimated to use illegal drugs in the general population.

Still, Deal said in a release that Florida’s law saved that state $1.8 million by reducing the number of applicants.

Sponsors of Georgia’s new law have said they are confident it will stand up in court. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens through a spokeswoman declined comment.

Georgia officials have estimated 800 of 19,000 applicants would likely test positive and be denied TANF. They also said it was hard to pinpoint the bill’s financial impact.

The governor has until May 8 to sign or veto bills passed this year by lawmakers.

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