By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida lawmakers on Friday approved a measure allowing state agency heads to randomly test employees for illegal drugs, sending the bill to Governor Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it.
By a 26-14 vote, the Senate approved a measure, House Bill 1205, that allows up to 10 percent of a department's employees to be randomly tested for alcohol and other substance abuse.
"This is the 21st Century and drug abuse is rampant," said Senator Alan Hays, a Republican from Umatilla and Senate sponsor of the bill.
The bill would allow tests to be conducted every 90 days. It would prohibit department heads from firing employees who initially test positive for drugs but could require such employees to participate in rehabilitation programs.
Backers of the measure said the voluntary program mirrors efforts that have long been in place in private industry.
"I've had a drug-free workplace for more than 20 years," said Senator Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is chief executive of a printing company. "I believe that it has contributed to higher quality employees."
Critics, a coalition of Democrats and at least one conservative Republican, said the measure was an intrusive and unnecessary procedure. They also chided their Republican colleagues for a "big government" program that they said would improperly insert the government into an employee's personal life.
"We're talking less personal freedom without probable cause," said Senator Chris Smith, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale. "This is more government intrusion and more costs."
"It is a waste of our time and our money," said Senator Larcenia Bullard, a Democrat from Miami.
Lawmakers in several states have passed similar measures in the past few years. Florida legislators last year voted to require applicants for federal public assistance to pass a test for illegal drugs. A federal judge barred enforcement of that law pending resolution of a challenge to its constitutionality.
The courts have generally upheld random drug testing for workers in jobs that involve public safety. But opponents say that broader testing of workers who are not suspected of wrongdoing violates their constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizure, and robs them of due process.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch)