LANSING (AP) - The Republican-led Michigan House approved legislation Wednesday that would require some people to pass drug tests and ensure that their children don't miss too many days of school in order to receive welfare benefits.
Supporters say the measures are designed to break the cycle of poverty by helping drug users find treatment and encouraging parents to send their children to school. But opponents say the measures are punitive attacks on low income individuals who rely on state assistance to get by.
"It's an awful message to send out across to our own citizens and across the county that this is what happens in Michigan if you are down on your luck," said Shelli Weisberg, legislative liaison for the ACLU of Michigan.
The measure passed by a 77-33 vote the Department of Human Services — which supports the bill — would establish a substance abuse screening process for people applying for the family independence assistance program. If there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is using illegal substances, like drugs, that person would be required to take a drug test. The Department of Human Services would start screening next April in three yet-to-be determined counties and the program would be reevaluated after one year.
Several Democrats — along with the majority Republicans — voted for the measure.
The measure now heads to the Senate where it's likely to advance. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican, told The Associated Press that he fully supports the bill, arguing that the aim is to help people who rely on welfare get back on their feet.
People who test positive for the first time would be referred to a substance abuse treatment center and could continue receiving benefits throughout their treatment. But if a person tests positive subsequent times or drops out of treatment their family benefits would be stripped.
"We cannot continue to subsidize illegal substances but ... we will continue to support those families who need and want our help, and this bill provides the incentive to stop using illegal drugs," said Republican Rep. Klint Kesto of Oakland County's Commerce Township.
Several Democrats — and one Republican — spoke against the bill Wednesday. Democratic Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright of Muskegon said it represents "another chapter in the Republican war against the poor." She said that it often takes people with addictions multiple treatment programs before they are able to conquer their substance abuse problems.
Democrats introduced a number of amendments Tuesday, including requiring that the department notify families that sign up for the program that they could be subject to a drug test and requiring lawmakers to also be tested for illegal substances.
Legislation requiring some form of drug testing or screening for welfare recipients has been proposed in at least 29 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Measures have passed in eight states.
Michigan briefly ran a pilot program to drug test welfare recipients in late 1999. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and a federal appeals court affirmed a lower court's order halting the program. Part of the legal challenge was based on the claim that constitutional rights were violated because testing was done without "individualized suspicion."
Weisberg said the ACLU is looking into if and how they can challenge the law if it goes into effect. But the constitutionality of this type of suspicion-based program — unlike programs that test all recipients — would be much more difficult to challenge, she said.
The House also approved a bill Wednesday on a 78-32 vote that would strip a family of benefits in the family independence program if a child under the age of 16 doesn't meet school attendance requirements. Truancy policies vary by school district.
The human services department put the policy in place in October, but this bill would write the policy into law to ensure it continues in future governors' administrations. Parents would be allowed to re-enroll in the program if their child meets three straight weeks of school attendance requirements.
Department spokesman Dave Akerly said in an email that the number of people who have actually lost their benefits since the policy was put in place is "very low," but did not have an exact number.
Opponents worry that the measure goes too far by kicking off all family members from the program for the actions of one child.
But Republican Rep. Al Pscholka of Stevensville, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the measure is designed to encourage children — some of whom miss one to one and half days of school a week — to go to school.
"This sends the message that education is how we break this cycle. Education is how we break the poverty cycle," he said.
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