INDIANAPOLIS — Before Indianapolis resident Connie Boster stopped drinking and abusing drugs, she sold her food stamps for money to buy alcohol and bought sodas from corner stores to get change in cash.
Welfare abuse such as Boster's is driving an Indiana effort to require recipients to be screened for the likelihood of addiction and limit food stamps to the purchase of only "nutritional foods." The legislation places the state in the middle of two national debates on government assistance programs.
Under the bill, residents who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would be required to fill out a questionnaire that screens for substance abuse and possibly take a drug test. Children whose guardian is ineligible to receive benefits could designate another adult in their place.
The bill also would restrict what can be bought through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Recipients could only purchase foods deemed "nutritional" by the state, a requirement that Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, says would prohibit recipients from using their benefits to buy candy and sugary drinks.
A Republican supermajority fueled the bill's passage in the Indiana House, but questions persist about its constitutionality and cost, as well as the practicality of placing more restrictions on assistance given to some of Indiana's poorest residents.
An average of about 25,000 Indiana residents per month received TANF funds in 2013, and more than 926,000 received SNAP benefits, according to federal data.
At least nine states have passed legislation requiring drug testing or screening of TANF recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the measures haven't always passed court muster.
A federal judge ruled Florida's law violated protections against unreasonable search and seizure, an outcome McMillin hopes to avoid by screening recipients first to determine if there's cause for further action.
The USDA rejected waiver requests from both New York and Minnesota to limit foods bought with SNAP. The Indiana bill would require a similar waiver, which the Family and Social Services Agency warned might result in a denial.
"Recent attempts in that have resulted in states being rejected when they attempt to restrict those purchases of soft drinks, candy, soda and sweets," Lance Rhodes, FSSA's Division of Family Resources director, said during testimony for the bill. "We're concerned there might be some significant legal questions about treating one group of people differently than another group of people."
Opponents also argue the bill unfairly targets the poor, who they say are no more likely to fall prey to addiction or bad nutrition than anyone else. USDA analysis shows the poor make only slightly worse food choices, and only about 2.6 percent of Florida applicants failed a drug test.
"Applying for public assistance is not a waiver of our rights under the Fourth Amendment," said Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Indiana chapter.
Boster, who receives both TANF and SNAP money, said she doesn't mind the proposed changes now that she's drug-free.
"I think the drug-testing thing would be good, and it's not just because I'm not using now," Boster said. "I see more now. I see how it's being misused."
The state and TANF recipients would have to pick up the tab for drug testing anyone who shows a likelihood of addiction. The move cost Florida about $45,780, not including court fees.
The price could be much higher for Indiana. Implementing the bill would save about $521,000 over two years but cost at least $1.18 million in the same time, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The state would pay for passed drug tests.
Those who test positive for drugs would initially continue to receive money if they enter drug treatment, a change from previous proposals. After four months of failed tests, benefits would be cut off for three months. To receive benefits again, applicants would have to test drug-free.
The cost of tests every few weeks would come out of their monthly assistance. McMillin said tests might cost about $20.
Drug treatment could range from free church counseling to treatment that can range in cost from $25 a day to more than $1,700 a day depending on the facility.
Opponents of the bill question how affordable treatment would be.
"Treating someone for a heroin addiction unfortunately is not something you would be able to get at your local church," state Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, said during a committee hearing. "It can be thousands of dollars to treat an addiction for heroin."
McMillin said the fiscal analysis of the bill doesn't tell the whole story.
"We at least save money on this . by changing our policy, by offering hand-ups instead of handouts and getting people back on their feet," he said. "Those numbers are not reflected in the LSA numbers."
The measure now goes to the Senate.