POLITICS
01/26/2015 09:23 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Backing Down From Food Stamp Fight

WASHINGTON -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) had previously said he wanted to fight the Obama administration over drug tests for food stamp recipients, but it turns out Walker would prefer to ask nicely.

A Walker spokeswoman said that instead of just imposing the drug tests, the governor's forthcoming budget proposal will seek permission to do so.

"The budget will include language requesting waivers from the federal government to test all able-bodied adults without dependents on FoodShare, as well as all childless adults on Medicaid," Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email Sunday.

Wisconsin would need a waiver because federal law bars states from adding new eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known in Wisconsin as FoodShare), though states have some leeway to add drug screening to other programs. Last year, Walker suggested he wanted food stamp drug tests even if federal law disallowed the policy, saying he would take the fight to the courts.

"We believe that there will potentially be a fight with the federal government and in court," Walker told the Journal Sentinel in September.

Walker is backing down from that stance, which Democrats derided as a campaign pose when Walker first pitched it last year. He didn't mention the proposal during a speech to conservative activists in Iowa over the weekend.

Waivers can be controversial. States used them to modify safety net policies leading up to welfare reform in the 1990s, but during the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress harshly attacked the Obama administration for inviting states to seek waivers from some rules of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a welfare expert with the liberal Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., said it's hard to imagine the Obama administration granting drug test waivers for nutrition assistance.

"So this suggests more a matter of political positioning than of actual policy that is likely to be implemented any time soon," Lower-Basch said. "The problem is that drug-testing proposals not only are based on stereotypes, they reinforce those stereotypes."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps, had no comment on Walker's proposal, which has yet to be formally proposed or even outlined with much specificity.

Walker's spokeswoman said that even if waivers don't work out, the governor will push forward with drug testing through yet-to-be-determined alternative means.

"Our office is evaluating all legal options in the event that the FoodShare waiver is denied," Patrick said.

Patrick also said that Walker will pursue drug testing in several other programs, including unemployment insurance, though none are as controversial as Walker's original food stamps proposal. When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a similar measure into law last year, the USDA warned him the policy was out of line and could cost the state administrative funding. Deal didn't go through with it.

In 2013, Republicans in Congress tried to give states the freedom to drug-test food stamp recipients, but Democrats warded off the attempt.

This story has been updated to include Patrick's comments that the governor's office will evaluate legal options if its food stamp waiver request is denied.

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