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Both Major Candidates For Governor Want To Drug Test Welfare Recipients

Jack Conway
J. Tyler Franklin
Jack Conway

Attorney General Jack Conway says he supports drug testing some welfare recipients in Kentucky, echoing the position of his Republican opponent.

Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, joins Republican nominee Matt Bevin in supporting drug testing of some Kentuckians who receive public assistance as a way to encourage people to get off drugs.

“I don’t want to see our tax dollars going to support drug addiction,” Conway said in an interview on Thursday.

Conway stopped short of Bevin's position in one key way, however: He doesn't support randomly testing recipients. Rather, Conway said, he would support having social workers intervene when they have reasonable suspicion that a welfare recipient is exhibiting addicted behavior.

Drug testing recipients of public assistance without reasonable suspicion has been declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Florida’s program, which required urine samples from every welfare recipient, was halted after a federal court ruled it an unreasonable search and seizure in 2011.

Federal law prohibits drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment assistance and food stamps. But states have focused on those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, which can be used for food, utilities and other expenses.

According to the state Department of Health and Family Services, nearly 37,000 Kentuckians are currently receiving TANF funds through the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program. Eighty percent of them are children.

Bevin said in an interview with WFPL earlier this week that he supports random drug tests for recipients of public assistance, although on a limited basis that would protect children in low-income families.

He has also said he supports drug testing a much broader category of Kentuckians.

At a Republican Party primary debate hosted by Kentucky Sports Radio earlier this year, Bevin said he supports testing state employees and recipients of Medicaid and food stamps for drugs. He also said at a tea party forum in April he supports drug testing Medicare recipients.

On Tuesday, Conway said drug testing Medicare and Medicaid recipients would be cost-prohibitive.

“It’d cost a lot of money. It’d cost way more money than it would save,” Conway said.

Bevin’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment about his position on testing Medicare and Medicaid recipients.

A YouGov poll from December 2013 showed that 64 percent of Americans support requiring welfare recipients to submit to drug tests.

Michael Aldridge, executive director of ACLU Kentucky, said drug testing welfare recipients directly targets low-income communities.

“We’re not requiring drug testing for any other community that receives government benefits,” Aldridge said. “We don’t require senior citizens before they get Medicaid to be drug tested, and we don’t require executives in banks to be drug tested before we bail out their bank system.”

Legislation for drug testing welfare recipients has been proposed in recent years in Frankfort, but bills have been stopped in the Democratic-led House Health and Welfare Committee. In 2012, former Rep. Lonnie Napier, a Republican, authored a welfare drug testing bill that received 64 cosponsors in the 100-person House, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg.

There are 13 states that already drug test welfare recipients, most recently Arkansas and Wisconsin.

UPDATE: Independent candidate for governor Drew Curtis reached out to WFPL after this story posted to share his position on the issue. He said he doesn't support drug testing welfare recipients, claiming that programs in other states have found the program to be a "massive waste of money."

"That's just not fiscally responsible," Curtis said.

According to the Nashville Tennessean, 37 out of more than 16,000 welfare recipients in Tennessee were disqualified in the first six months of its drug testing program for testing positive. Another 81 lost benefits as a result of not completing a drug screening questionnaire.