Making good on a base-baiting campaign promise, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plans to push forward with a law that would impose stringent drug testing requirements on welfare recipients:
In Wisconsin, an estimated 836,000 people receive FoodShare benefits, about 40 percent of them children, according to the state Department of Health Services. As of last week, 39,958 people had filed weekly unemployment compensation claims, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Gillespie calls Walker’s crusade morally repellent, but that’s not the half of it:
Walker is supposed to be tight with a penny, right? That’s part of his, er, charm. Yet his sort of drug-testing is not only repellent on ethical grounds, it’s a clear waste of money.
If a recent program in Missouri is any indication, Wisconsin will be collecting urine by the bucketful to catch very few bad actors (and that assumes smoking dope, say, should be a reason to pull somebody’s benefits). Last year, Missouri started testing suspected drug users (note: suspected, meaning there was at least some hypothetical reason to think a person was using drugs). The state ended up spending $500,000 to test 636 people, of which 20 were found to be using. So around 3 percent of suspects tested positive and each test cost around $786. Before courts ruled Florida’s drug-testing regime illegal, the Sunshine State spent $115,000 on piss tests and ended up coughing up $600,000 in reimbursements to applicants who had been denied benefits.
While food stamps recipients are a bit more likely to use drugs casually than the general population according to one study, age is a far better predictor of drug use than economic status or public assistance enrollment. And the raw numbers are too low to justify a dragnet policy of testing everyone who applies, according to critics at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada. Just 3.6 percent of welfare recipients qualify as having a drug abuse or dependence problem according to 2011 data. About 8 percent of Americans and 9 percent of Wisconsin residents used drugs in the past month, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
A federal judge struck down Florida’s infamous drug testing law in January on the grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment. Even Noah Rothman admits that what Walker is proposing is likely unconstitutional:
Unlike Walker’s union reforms, which inspired a similar level of apoplexy in his Democratic opponents, these reforms may be a legitimate violation of constitutional rights. The state Supreme Court vindicated Walker’s collective bargaining reforms, but the conservative reformer may be setting himself up for a rebuke from the courts with his latest move. While states have slightly more freedom to experiment with similar reforms, federal law prohibits drug testing prospective beneficiaries. In September, Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he welcomes a fight with the federal government over his proposed reforms. “We believe that there will potentially be a fight with the federal government and in court,” Walker said.
Why would Scott Walker want to set up a fight with the courts and the federal government? The answer seems clear. These reforms are rather popular with base Republican voters, and the institutions which would oppose Walker’s reform are not. This is a pretty clear indication that Walker is interested in translating his successes in Wisconsin into the Republican presidential nomination.