Vilsack UW

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

STEVE APPS — State Journal

The state Legislature’s budget panel has approved proposals to drug test recipients of public benefits, including food stamps, jobless benefits, worker training programs and the BadgerCare Plus program.

But it’s unclear whether such testing would meet federal rules.

The Joint Finance Committee voted Tuesday on party lines to advance the proposals. The vote was 11-4 with all Republicans in favor, except one who was absent, and all Democrats against.

The proposals would require participants to undergo drug screenings and, depending on results of the screenings, to undergo drug tests.

The committee embraced Gov. Scott Walker’s proposals to drug test participants in worker training programs and childless adults in BadgerCare Plus, a Medicaid health coverage program for the poor.

The committee moved to scrap Walker’s drug-testing plan for food-stamp recipients. But it paved the way for a similar bill that passed the Assembly last week by requiring the state Department of Health Services to craft rules for implementing the bill.

Led by co-chairpersons Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the committee altered — but largely endorsed — Walker’s plan to drug-test jobless-benefit recipients.

Republicans said drug-testing requirements will help benefit recipients be more employable by encouraging them to be drug-free.

“I think it’s fair, I think it’s reasonable and I think the public agrees with us on this,” said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield.

Democrats dismissed the proposals as politically motivated. They said it’s unwise to advance the proposals without knowing how much they’ll cost.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said the state likely will be forced to defend the requirements in court and likely won’t succeed in doing so.

“This is punitive, this is probably unconstitutional, and this is going to cost us money,” Taylor said.

Assembly GOP spokeswoman Kit Beyer said Assembly Republicans wanted to advance the drug-testing proposals on two tracks: as standalone bills and through the budget process.

The Assembly passed its own bills last week to impose the drug-testing requirements. The Senate has yet to take up the bills.

The Assembly bill’s requirement for food-stamp recipients is similar to Walker’s proposal but would apply only to childless adults, among other differences. It also would apply only to participants in an educational and work experience training program for enrollees in FoodShare, Wisconsin’s food-stamp program.

Before implementing the requirement, the state would have to seek federal approval for it. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a recent letter to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said federal rules don’t permit states to impose sweeping drug-testing requirements such as the one proposed by Walker and Assembly Republicans.

Other states hit roadblocks when they tried to implement similar requirements. In Georgia, federal officials required the state to do away with such a requirement. In Florida, a requirement to drug test welfare recipients was struck down by a judge as unconstitutional.

The budget committee also voted to:

Cut 60 tower guard positions in 10 Wisconsin prisons, backing Walker’s proposal to reduce third-shift tower guard staffing. The cuts will save the state about $5.9 million over the next two years.

Department of Corrections officials say anyone currently filling those positions would be moved into other vacancies.

Corrections officials defend reducing staffing in the towers, saying there’s been only two inmate escape attempts during third shift over the last 20 years. They say they can maintain third-shift security using technology and perimeter patrols instead of tower guards.

Democrats on the budget committee questioned whether safety would be compromised by the cuts.

Spend an additional $5 million above previous estimates to pay for housing inmates in the state prison system.

The prison population growth estimates in Walker’s budget released in February are already outdated for both the state’s female and male prison populations.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the state will have to house about 150 more female prisoners and about 800 more male prisoners over the two-year budget than Walker forecast.

The committee approved converting beds at the Sturtevant Transitional Facility for use by long-term male prisoners and contracting for additional beds elsewhere.

Offer state workers $2,000 a year to opt out of taking state-subsidized health insurance.

According to data cited in a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report, the state would spend about $6.6 million annually on the payments. According to an actuary the report cites, the state could lose as much as $3.3 million or save as much as $18 million depending on how many employees take the deal.

The committee, which adopted the measure on a 12-4 vote, changed provisions proposed by Walker to make anyone who opted out in 2015 ineligible for the payment. An employee with a spouse on state insurance also would be ineligible.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.