Drug Testing Bills Proliferate In State Legislatures

April 11, 2013 | The Huffington Post |  Link to article

Republicans from coast to coast this year have sought to make the poor and jobless pee in cups to prove they're not on drugs, and in several states they are achieving or nearing their goal.

The Republican-controlled Kansas legislature passed a welfare drug testing bill late last week, and similar legislation is on the move in Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina and West Virginia.

"These are copycat bills that feed off of each other and are based on stereotypes," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy. "The stereotype is that welfare [and unemployment] recipients are more likely to use drugs, and more broadly that people are poor solely because of their bad choices instead of an economy that's not creating enough jobs."

The term "welfare" is sometimes used to describe any form of government assistance, but the bills actually target two separate populations. Welfare proper, formally known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, is generally available to parents in poverty. Unemployment insurance is only for workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, after they worked steadily and met a state's earning thresholds.

Researchers at the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures said that the bills usually comes from Republicans in Republican-dominated states and that they sometimes garner Democratic support, too. While lawmakers have been interested in drug testing the poor for decades, lately there is more interest than ever.

"It is a relatively recent phenomenon," said the organization's Jeanne Mejeurat.

At the federal level, Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to drug test both welfare and unemployment insurance applicants for the past several years. This year's efforts are unlikely to succeed, but last year Republicans did prevail in getting a watered-down unemployment drug testing bill into law. The measure will soon give states leeway to pursue testing for unemployment claimants; currently, state Republicans have pursued the policy even though U.S. Labor Department regulations don't allow it.

Federal judges struck down Florida's 2011 welfare drug testing law because the screening violated the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches by the government. Recently, more lawmakers have sought to alleviate constitutional concerns by proposing drug tests only when state officials have reason to believe a welfare applicant might be on drugs. Civil liberties advocates are more likely to sue over random or blanket testing than testing based on reasonable suspicion.

Legislators in two states gave preliminary approval to drug testing bills this week. The Texas state Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would subject welfare applicants to a preliminary screening and then solicit urine samples from some applicants based on the screening. (Texas lawmakers are also mulling drug tests for unemployment claimants.) The Arkansas state Senate passed an unemployment drug testing bill on Monday that would randomly test claimants.

Earlier this year lawmakers in North Dakota, Wyoming, Maine, Washington, Virginia and New Hampshire proposed bills, but have had less success moving the legislation forward than their counterparts in Kansas, Texas and Arkansas.

Wyoming state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) told The Huffington Post that bills to require drug testing for those receiving welfare and unemployment benefits failed for a number of reasons, including that there isn't a "widespread belief" the legislation addresses a serious problem. In terms of the welfare testing, Zwonitzer said that roughly half of the state's recipients are senior citizens who are using the funds to raise grandchildren.

"Many legislators don't feel comfortable requiring them to take a piss test," he said.

A proposal in North Carolina comes as the Republican-controlled state legislature has introduced a series of conservative proposals in recent weeks, including a bill to create a state religion and to restrict college voting. State Democratic Party spokesman Ben Ray was quick to place the blame on Republican leaders in the state House and Senate. He called the proposals a waste of money.

"They need to start working with all parties to come up with real solutions on jobs for North Carolina's hardworking families," Ray said.

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