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What should Georgia voters be more upset about? Elected officials who enact legislation that they know is illegal or elected officials who are so disconnected from the needs of their constituents and the capacities of our public systems that they actually think the legislation is a good idea?
Monday, Governor Deal signed into law HB 772. The bill requires recipients of food stamps and welfare to submit to, and pay for, a drug test if caseworkers at the state’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) are suspicious of drug use. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the litany of problems with the legislation, by both ourselves and others, so I won’t restate those arguments here other than to say that we know from experience in both our state and others that laws like these are illegal, ineffective, expensive and unneeded.
So, why pass them? The stated reason, according to the bill’s authors, proponents and final signatory, is “personal responsibility.” If you’re spending money on drugs instead of food, you’re being personally irresponsible and therefore your family doesn’t deserve help putting food on the table. No one is against personal responsibility. It falls into the category of integrity, freedom, honesty and apple pie as a universally endorsed platitude. But isn’t it a reasonable expectation that our elected officials would first practice what they are preaching, and at the very least, be held to the same standard of behavior?
So, let’s talk more about personal responsibility. Are elected officials demonstrating personal responsibility by using taxpayer time, money and resources to pass legislation in the face of undeniable evidence that the legislation is illegal, ineffective, expensive and unneeded? Are they being personally responsible with taxpayer dollars by paying lawyers to defend bad legislation?
Are elected officials demonstrating personal responsibility by enacting laws that place additional responsibilities on a state department that is already very publicly over burdened and failing to perform its core functions? Asking a historically underfunded DFCS to assume more responsibilities at this time, particularly those for which they are neither trained nor equipped to perform, is tantamount to asking a drowning man to hold your fishing pole. Even if you think that drug testing Georgians who receive benefits is a good idea, the only way that you could imagine that DFCS is currently up to the operational challenge is willful ignorance or gross negligence. Neither of which sounds like good governance or personal responsibility.
Lastly, are elected officials demonstrating personal responsibility by enacting laws that make it harder for our most vulnerable neighbors to receive the assistance they need to feed themselves and their families? Almost 90% of Georgians who receive food stamps are children, adults caring for children, seniors, or people living with disabilities. These are our neighbors whom we should be most concerned about. Elected officials will claim that HB 772 does not target these families and individuals, and therefore will not affect them. Again, this claim is either gross negligence or willful ignorance of the way our public services often work. There is no system in which chaos theory is more applicable than in the administration of government programs. A poorly written bill in the house, the uncapping of a pen in the Governor’s office, and a mother of 3 in Hall County has to spend $30 of grocery money on a drug test because her car broke down on the way to a DFCS interview. This is not personal responsibility. It is mean spiritedness.
One of the key roles of a leader is to demonstrate the character and the qualities that a business, a congregation, a community or a state need to grow and to thrive. We do need more personal responsibility in Georgia, and we need it in our elected officials. HB 772 is an example of not just a failure of personal responsibility but a failure of leadership at every step of the process. Ultimately, the citizens of Georgia are personally responsible for who leads us, and thankfully we can begin to correct these failures in the upcoming elections. I encourage all of us to be personally responsible for doing so at the ballot box.
-Jon West, Community Building Manager