Gov. Scott Walker delivers the budget address in the Assembly chamber at the State Capitol, in Madison, on Tuesday, February 3, 2015. photo by Michelle Stocker

It's one of the most contentious elements of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget, but the fiscal specifics of Walker's proposal to drug test recipients of public aid remain sparse.

Critics say that's because the proposal is more about political posturing than serious reform. But the Republican governor's office says the proposal will help with job placement and ultimately result in savings for the state.

Unveiled last week, the likely 2016 presidential candidate's two-year budget includes a proposal to drug test able-bodied adults who apply for unemployment insurance and some other public assistance benefits.

Walker announced in January that such a proposal would be in his 2016-17 budget, first suggesting that he would also impose tests for food stamp recipients — a provision destined for a legal battle with the Obama administration. But the state now plans to request a waiver from the federal government to test those in the FoodShare and Medicaid programs.

It's likely that waiver will be denied, but Walker's office has previously said it will evaluate "all legal options" to move forward in that event. 

Critics of the proposal have called it a waste of money, but Walker's budget includes no cost estimate for implementation. It also doesn't say how much money, if any, the state expects to save as a result of the program. 

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email that state general purpose revenue will likely be required for drug treatment and job training. The proposal stipulates that anyone who tests positive for illegal drug use will be provided treatment.

However, Patrick said, "there will be savings overall," across all funds. Those savings would stay within the specific programs, she said.

"As an example, UI (unemployment insurance) savings would stay in UI because that isn’t state general fund revenue," Patrick said.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has not only made plans to fight Walker's waiver request, he called the proposal a "colossal waste of money" on WKOW-TV's "Capitol City Sunday."

Parisi said the cost to Dane County to implement a testing program would add up to about $2 million over the next two-year budget cycle.

Walker opponents say the proposal amounts to political grandstanding, heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics. 

"He wants a talking point for the Republican presidential primary and he believes targeting those in need is a political advantage for him," said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.

Ross suggested Walker is moving forward with the plan because it tested well among conservative voters, calling it "an attack on the people being victimized by (Walker's) failed economic policies."

"He's dropping this into the GOP Legislature's lap with zero regard for the huge cost to the taxpayers of Wisconsin," Ross said.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin communications director Melissa Baldauff suggested fiscal specifics aren't included in the budget proposal because the numbers would show a cost to taxpayers.

"If Scott Walker actually wants to help middle class families and employers alike, he should drop this shameless and costly pander to Iowa caucus voters and start reworking his budget to eliminate his devastating cuts to K-12 education and our world-class UW System," Baldauff said.

A policy document contained in the drafting files for Walker's proposal lists the following as potential costs incurred under the proposal: "1) purchasing the drug tests, including initial and retests; 2) laboratory fees; 3) staff time to administer tests, monitor compliance and eligibility and deal with increased administrative hearings; 4) modifying facilities to accommodate the testing; 5) modifying computer programs to accommodate drug testing in eligibility; 6) substance abuse treatment; 7) hiring a contractor to administer the tests; 8) program oversight; and 9) legal fees if the law is challenged."

Walker has fended off criticism of the plan by touting it as a way to help both employers and those out of work. In his budget address, he said his administration isn't making it harder to receive government assistance; it's making it "easier to get a job."

"Why are we doing this? Well, because we know that we can get people jobs," Walker said in his budget address. "Each week, employers tell me that they have positions available — they just need individuals who can show up for work and who can pass a drug test."

At least 12 states have passed similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Laws based on "suspicionless" or "random" drug testing have been struck down, most recently in Florida. The cost of implementing across-the-board tests in Florida added up to more money than would have been paid to the 2.6 percent of applicants who failed drug tests, the New York Times reported. The most common reason for failed tests in Florida was marijuana use.

Tennessee started drug testing welfare applicants on a suspicion-based model in July 2014. Six months into the program, 37 of 16,017 — or 0.2 percent — of applicants have tested positive.

According to a 2011 report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most estimates find substance abuse problems exist among somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of welfare recipients — or a few percentage points higher than rates among the general population.

The report noted that those rates generally include only "illicit drugs" while — just as in the general population — alcohol is the most prevalent substance abused by welfare recipients.

The document prepared for Walker's proposal cites the numbers from that brief, adding this: "Nevertheless, for the small group of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) that do struggle with substance abuse and addiction it can be a significant barrier to employment, and substance abuse treatment can be vital."

Under the proposal, applicants will have to complete a questionnaire to screen for abuse of a controlled substance. The budget directs the Department of Workforce Development to develop a plan for screening and testing applicants.

"It’s important to note that Gov. Walker’s proposal is focused on workforce readiness," Patrick said. "The best way to improve lives and strengthen families is to help people become workforce ready through better education and the opportunity to acquire more skills. True freedom and prosperity come from empowering people through the dignity of work."

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