PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Florida residents on welfare may have to prove they're drug free in order to keep their benefits. Lawmakers in Tallahassee are considering bills that would require welfare recipients to pass yearly drug tests and pay for them themselves.
"I think they should test everybody for drugs," said Ricky Bharan of Riviera Beach. "I've been there, done that and now I'm clean for 13 years. I shot heroin for 18 years. I'm clean for 13 years and I know what it is. Test them for drugs."
On Thursday, the House Judiciary committee voted 13 – 5 to approve HB 353. The bill would deny benefits for a year if a welfare recipient failed a drug test. A second failed test could keep them from receiving aid for up to three years. Lawmakers in the Senate are considering a similar bill (SB 556).
"I don't think so," said Dora Lundy of Lake Park, when asked about the measures. "I just think it violates people's rights."
Debbie Marchesani of North Palm disagreed. "I think you could cut a lot of people out that way and I think people are taking advantage of our government," she said.
A failed test would not affect food stamp eligibility or children's benefits; however, some still worry what it could mean for families.
"I don't think that's right," explained Hilbert Stubbs of Riviera Beach, "because you're making the kids suffer, not the adults. The kids suffer."
"I think it's a good idea," admitted Carol Sirmans of Riviera Beach, "but it could hurt the benefits that the parents are getting for the kids. That's the only thing."
Some Palm Beach County residents say they're not sure how it will work, but they think something needs to be done.
"Just like so many things, it's got so many pluses and minuses about it," explained Linda Perlman of Lake Park, "but I think that they should do something to qualify for it. I think something should be done that qualifies people to get the money. A lot of people need it desperately."
If either measure passes, state officials say many details would still need to be worked out. Critics argue if someone fails the test and opts for drug treatment, they could still go a long time without benefits as many substance abuse programs have been scaled back or eliminated because of budget cuts.