By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida will begin testing welfare recipients for illicit drug use under a new law signed by Governor Rick Scott on Tuesday.
The measure makes Florida the only state to test all recipients of the federal program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, according a Washington-based public policy group that says other states have chosen less obtrusive ways to monitor drug use.
The new law, a version of which was struck down by a federal court in Michigan in 2003, requires recipients to pay for the tests before qualifying for benefits and periodically after they receive them.
The law was one of Scott's campaign promises. Supporters say it will help ensure that taxpayer money is used to get families on their feet and not to fuel drug habits at state expense.
"While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction," Scott said in a statement released after he signed the bill during a visit to Panama City.
"This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars."
Beginning July 1, recipients who test positive for drugs would be denied benefits for a year. A second failed test would result in a three-year ban.
In two-parent households, both adults would be tested. Benefits to children could be awarded to a third-party recipient, who must also pass a drug screen.
The law will not affect the federal food stamp program.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Florida Legal Services, said they will decide in coming weeks if they plan to file suit against the law on the grounds that blanket drug tests are unconstitutional.
Federal law allows states to screen for drug use under the TANF program, which provides a maximum $300 a month cash assistance to needy families. The program, which replaced traditional welfare in the mid 1990s, has a 48-month lifetime cap on benefits.
Other states have studied the issue and decided testing all recipients was not cost effective, the Washington-based Center for Legal and Social Policy said in a study released in January.
Most states have drug assessment programs that do not include urine or blood tests. Some require drug tests from recipients who have been convicted of felony drug crimes.
During debate about the law, critics pointed to a pilot testing program in Florida that was shut down in 2001 after it showed no significant difference in drug use between welfare recipients and the population at large.
"The wasteful program created by this law subjects Floridians who are impacted by the economic downturn, as well as their families, to a humiliating search of their urine and body fluids without cause or even suspicion of drug abuse," said Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU Florida, in a statement.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Ellen Wulfhorst)