West Virginia lawmakers OK drug testing welfare recipients

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2016 4:20 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A proposal to drug test some welfare applicants in West Virginia could soon head to the governor's desk, and if it becomes law, the state would be among at least 13 others that have drug tests for people who need public assistance.

The Republican-led House of Delegates voted 91-8 on Wednesday in favor of the three-year statewide drug-testing pilot program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program applicants.

The GOP-led Senate already passed it by wide margins, and senators would need to cast at least another procedural vote before sending the bill to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who hasn't said whether he supports it.

"Our concentration has been more on helping people get the services they need if they're addicted to drugs," Tomblin said Wednesday. "At the same time, we'll just look at this bill when it comes down here."

At least 13 states have drug testing for public assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia contend that the tests would be an unconstitutional search and seizure without a warrant.

The West Virginia measure seeks federal approval to test applicants with a "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. Tests would cost the state $56 a piece, an expected price tag of $50,200 in the first year and $22,200 in following years. Some lawmakers said it could cost more.

A caseworker would decide who demonstrates "qualities indicative of substance abuse," which includes drug-related convictions within five years.

Failed tests would require substance abuse treatment, counseling and a job skills program. A subsequent failure would spur up to a one-year ban on benefits, and a third would trigger a permanent ban.

Drug testing programs in several other states cost money and found few positive tests. But some proponents in West Virginia, a poor state with one of the worst drug epidemics in the country, described the bill as a tool to turn people's lives around.

"Any effort to measure the value of this program in terms of money is doomed to failure," said Del. John Shott, a Republican. "How can we possibly place a value on putting one person's life back on track?"

Opponents questioned why the poor were being targeted, saying other state-aid recipients are just as likely to be on drugs. Democrats were unsuccessful in pushing amendments that would have applied the drug testing to state lawmakers and people in charge of private projects reliant upon state money.

"In addition to being in violation of the 4th Amendment and our constitutional privacy rights, I think this targeting of poor people is going to be found to be discriminatory," said Del. Barbara Fleischauer, a Democrat.

A broader 2011 Florida law requiring all applicants for its state program to take drug tests was struck down. In December 2014, a federal appeals court agreed with a decision that Florida's law was unconstitutional.