MADISON — Getting high could prove costly for Wisconsin welfare recipients under a Republican-led proposal making its way through the Legislature.
Assembly Bill 172 raises the financial penalties on Wisconsin Works — or W-2 — welfare recipients who test positive for illegal drug use.
A positive test could cost a beneficiary at least 25 percent, and as much as 50 percent, of his welfare check.
“To receive public assistance and then turning around to use taxpayer money and buy drugs is an affront to every hard-working citizen out there,” said state Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, one of 16 lawmakers to introduce the bill. “I don’t think the average person in Wisconsin minds when a person falls on hard times helping them out, but it should not be abused by people who use drugs.”
An average of 55 people a month used the program in La Crosse County last year — a jump from 2009’s average of 45 per month. As many as 80 were enrolled in the program earlier this year, but participation dropped to 64 in July, said La Crosse County Economic Support Manager Lorie Graff.
Each La Crosse County recipient gets a monthly payment of $673 or $628, depending on circumstances. Last year, the department handed out $275,672 in W-2 payments.
The current law stipulates that anyone in a community service job or a transitional placement who was convicted of a drug felony after Aug. 22, 1996, to submit to a drug test. A W-2 recipient loses up to 15 percent of the welfare benefit for at least a year for a positive drug screen.
It is a penalty rarely levied.
Between September 1999 and April, a total of 27 W-2 participants received a 12-month drug felony sanction, according to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. No recipients have lost benefits over drugs in recent years in La Crosse County.
State Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, said the threat of reducing financial benefits will get the attention of those on the program.
“It’s sending the message that we’re not going to use tax dollars to enable people to continue to abuse drugs,” he said. “It’s an ongoing fight we had for decades. Things we can do to send that message without spending a fortune are important.
“I like the concept; it’s a good theory,” he said. “I want to make sure practices still follow the theory.”
Still, Doyle is concerned the bill could increase drug use by taking away people’s ability to get a job. Recipients could turn to dealing to make up for the loss of income.
Critics argue that no evidence suggests welfare recipients are more likely than the general population to use illegal drugs.
A 2002 analysis by the New York-based Legal Action Center, an advocacy organization for addicts, found as high as 20 percent of welfare recipients struggle with drug or alcohol problems. It’s about 6 percent in the general population. The Center for Legal and Social Policy, based in Washington, D.C., found 10 percent of Michigan welfare recipients failed drug tests, and 3 percent were found to be hard-core users.
Then there is the constitutional question. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned states like Florida and Missouri, which this year passed laws requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, that U.S. courts have struck down such random tests in the past. Courts also, in limited degrees, approved drug testing. Wisconsin’s ACLU chapter could not be reached for comment.
In Minnesota, a similar bill was presented earlier this year by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, that would require any person applying for Minnesota’s long-term welfare program to pass a drug test prior to approval. It targets the Minnesota Family Investment Program, used on a monthly basis by about 75,000 state residents in 2010. The bill has yet to move forward.
Steineke said he’s not worried about the constitutionality of AB 172. Given the volatile nature of the Legislature’s spring session, the Republican lawmaker said he half expects every bit of Republican legislation to be challenged in court.
Steineke said he’s hopeful the Legislature will quickly take up the bill at the start of the fall session, which begins next week.
Tribune reporter Jessica Larsen contributed to this report