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Plans to require drug testing to get welfare gain momentum

Conservatives who say welfare recipients should have to pass a drug test in order to receive government assistance have momentum on their side.

The issue has come up in the Republican presidential campaign, with front-runner Mitt Romney saying "it's an excellent idea."

Nearly two dozen states are considering plans this session that would make drug testing mandatory for welfare recipients, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. And Wyoming lawmakers advanced such a proposal this week.

Driving the measures is a perception that people on public assistance are misusing the funds and that cutting off their benefits would save money for tight state budgets -- even as statistics have largely proved both notions untrue.

"The idea, from Joe Taxpayer is, 'I don't mind helping you out, but you need to show that you're looking for work, or better yet that you're employed, and that you're drug and alcohol free,' " said Wyoming Republican House Speaker Ed Buchanan on Friday.

Supporters are pushing the measures despite warnings from opponents that courts have struck down similar programs, ruling that the plans amount to an unconstitutional search of people who have done nothing more than seek help.

"This legislation assumes suspicion on this group of people. It assumes that they're drug abusers," said Wyoming Democratic Rep. Patrick Goggles during a heated debate on the measure late Thursday.

This year conservative lawmakers in 23 states from Wyoming to Mississippi -- where lawmakers want random screening to include nicotine tests -- are moving forward with proposals.

Newt Gingrich addressed the topic with Yahoo News in November, saying he considered testing as a way to curb drug use and lower related costs to public programs.

"It could be through testing before you get any kind of federal aid -- unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it," he said.

In Idaho, budget analysts last year concluded that such a program would cost more money than it would save, prompting lawmakers to ditch the idea.

Also, recent federal statistics indicate that welfare recipients are no more likely to abuse drugs than the general population.

"If you can afford to buy drugs, and use drugs, you don't need" welfare, said Republican Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, who is sponsoring a bill in Colorado this session.

Linda Burt, director of the ACLU in Wyoming, said this week it's possible her group would challenge the testing program if it's adopted in Wyoming.

"We challenged it in Michigan. We challenged it in Florida. Both of those cases found that singling out this particular group of people for drug testing was unconstitutional with absolutely no cause."