MADISON, Wis. - Gov. Scott Walker is moving forward with an effort to drug test some food stamp recipients, with testing expected to begin in as little as a year absent action from lawmakers or the federal government.
Wisconsin's Republican governor has submitted a plan to state lawmakers for drug testing able-bodied recipients of the state's Food Share program. If the state Legislature doesn't object within 120 days, the plan will go into effect, though it will take at least a year for actual testing to begin.
The program won't necessarily have a massive effect, however. The Walker administration estimated in October that only about 220 food stamp recipients statewide — or just 0.3% of able-bodied adults — would test positive in the first year.
“Employers have jobs available, but they need skilled workers who can pass a drug test," Walker said in a statement. "This rule change means people battling substance use disorders will be able to get the help they need to get healthy and get back into the workforce.”
A year ago, Walker had asked then President-elect Donald Trump and his incoming administration to clear the way for the change in the food stamp program, which is overseen by the state but largely funded by federal taxpayers. So far that hasn't happened but a Walker spokesman said Monday that the governor believes the state can proceed without any federal action.
"Our position is we have the authority to implement the rule," spokesman Tom Evenson said.
The now-departed appointees of President Barack Obama didn't see it that way. In January 2017, right before Trump took over the White House, the former U.S. official in charge of the replacement program to food stamps said such testing would require a change in federal law.
"The law clearly does not allow it," said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary at the federal Food and Nutrition Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Walker's "office forwarded that request to us and it was very clear, we consulted the legal counsels here and the law absolutely does not allow it."
The Trump administration, however, may not see the issue in the same light.
If the testing does move forward, it's likely to face a legal challenge, said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee.
"As this moves forward we anticipate that the issue will be litigated, making it an expensive idea for taxpayers from the Badger State," she said.
Walker and GOP lawmakers passed a broad drug testing plan for public benefits recipients in 2015 as part of the state budget.
Under the plan, able-bodied adults seeking public benefits such as Food Share, health care, jobless payments and welfare to work would be drug tested. Those who failed would need to comply with treatment requirements or lose benefits.
Advocates for the needy have pointed to studies suggesting that similar testing programs in other states were expensive and turned up few positive test results in return. The approach ends up hurting both taxpayers and poor families, they say.
Walker and other supporters of the proposal say that it's needed to get more people into the workforce. It's not punitive because drug users will be given a chance to get treatment, they say.
The proposed plan submitted by the Walker administration in October found that the state would screen about 67,400 applicants a year and require about 3% of them, or 2,100, to take a drug test.
It would cost about $867,000 a year to treat the estimated 224 people expected to test positive, with the costs being split between the state, federal government and private insurers, according to the proposal.