Economy

The Last-Minute Change That Scott Walker Made To The Wisconsin Budget

CREDIT: Brennan Linsley, AP

Just ahead of his official announcement that he’s running for president, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed his state’s budget into law while vetoing 104 items Sunday, twice as many as in the last two budgets. One significant change would make it easier for the state to drug test anyone who applies for food stamps.

Walker removed a provision that would have limited the tests to applicants with “reasonable suspicion,” saying the administration shouldn’t have limits on who it wants to screen. But that move puts the state at a real risk of being sued, given that Florida’s law drug testing all welfare applicants was struck down by the courts as a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s “unreasonable search and seizure” clause.

The presidential hopeful’s original proposal also planned to pay for free drug treatment and job training for those who tested positive, but another change he made on Sunday eliminated the free treatment. While his first proposal made it difficult to determine how much the drug testing program would cost the state, the official policy will now leave impoverished people who have limited health insurance no way to afford drug treatment.

The drug testing program, if it were ever to become reality, would still potentially carry a higher price tag than any savings gained from rescinded benefits to people who tested positive. Florida’s program came at a cost to the state before it was ended by the courts, and the seven states with existing programs drug testing welfare applicants have spent nearly $1 million on them collectively. That cost would come at a time when Walker has been trying to plug a hundred-million-dollar budget shortfall.

Walker said the drug tests would “make sure [recipients are] free of drugs,” adding, “Because we know if they’re free of drugs they know — or they have basic employability skills — we can find a job for anyone in the state of Wisconsin.” But drug testing public benefit applicants has not been a good method for rooting out widespread drug use. In the states with active programs, positive drug test rates have been below 1 percent in all but one, and all of them are below the national drug use rate of 9.4 percent. Meanwhile, without the guarantee of treatment, a positive test and ban from food stamps may do little to rid someone of any serious addiction.

The testing plan is also all likely symbolic, given that Wisconsin would need to get a federal waiver to change the food stamps program. Unlike welfare, where states have significant leeway to make changes, the Obama administration would have to sign off on a plan to drug test food stamp applicants. That hasn’t stopped Wisconsin lawmakers from trying to make other changes to the state’s food stamps program, including limits on what they can buy with their benefits that would ban recipients from buying shellfish and restrict staples like pasta sauce, dried beans, and spices. Other states have also been working on so-called “junk food bans” for food stamps.