Greg Leding, a Democratic representative in Arkansas’s House, didn’t like the idea of his state creating a pilot project to drug test some welfare applicants in certain towns to begin with. So when the legislation was up for a vote last year, he voted against it. But he didn’t even realize that a provision inserted at the last minute would give his governor the power to unilaterally expand that project to the entire state.
In fact he didn’t realize it until last week, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) announced his intent to do just that. “As far as I know, I don’t know that any legislators were made aware of the decision until news broke early last week,” he told ThinkProgress. “You would think the governor’s office would have at least some kind of conversation with the legislature to let them know that this was the plan, rather than finding out through the press.”
When asked to comment on why there was no discussion with the legislature, a spokesperson for the governor said in an email, “The governor was following through on what the legislature passed.”
The original legislation “was pitched as a limited pilot project,” Leding said. Originally, it would just have created a two-year program in counties bordering states that already drug test welfare recipients. But out of concern that objections might be raised about a targeted program, some lawmakers inserted a line saying, “The pilot program shall include the population statewide as determined by the Department [of Workforce Services].” Leding doesn’t recall any discussion of that language.
But the language is being used to implement drug testing in a matter of days. That means any Arkansas resident who applies for or renews Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits will have to answer questions about possible illegal drug use, and if there is reasonable suspicion of use, the applicant will have to take a drug test. Anyone who refuses will lose benefits for six months, while someone who tests positive will be referred to a treatment program, although the new testing regimen won’t pay for that treatment. If that person fails to complete a program or tests positive afterward, he’ll lose benefits for six months.
Other lawmakers were taken aback by the governor’s move. “I think the governor’s choosing to not follow the intent of the legislation,” House Minority Leader Michael John Gray (D) told Arkansas Online. “The intent was to have a pilot program, to see the efficiency and effectiveness of the program and not spend money statewide.”
Other strange information has been released by the governor’s administration. When it announced its intent to expand the program statewide, it estimated doing so would cost about $1.5 million while capturing just $40,000 in savings from people who lose their benefits. But a week later, it revised the cost estimate to just $100,000.
When asked how it was able to reduce the estimate, an official at the state Department of Workforce Services told ThinkProgress, “TANF program administrators have since come back and through a series of brainstorming sessions come up with cost-effective methods to implement the various aspects of the legislation.” Those include lowering administrative costs through using existing staff, not using an off-the-shelf drug testing product, using current information technology systems, and “drug testing costs lowered by revising initial assumptions.”
Leding wants more information about the cost estimates. “I think they warrant an explanation,” he said. “I would like to know a little bit more about how they reached those original estimates…and to know a little bit more about [the revisions].” He also questioned whether the savings estimate remains the same — which would still mean the program comes at a net cost. The Department of Workforce Services did not comment on that estimate.
No matter the cost, Leding doesn’t think it’s worth it. “It is good politics but dumb policy,” he said. While he understands wanting to ensure government money is used well and people with abuse problems get help, he noted that other states that drug test welfare recipients have found incredibly low positive test rates. They have also found that drug testing comes with a big cost — ten states have spent about $2 million over two years on their programs.
Proponents of the bill feel differently. Sen. Black Johnson (R), who sponsored the original legislation, was asked by the Arkansas News if, say, only 11 people tested positive it would still be a good use of state money. “Absolutely,” he said.