A proposal to require WorkFirst applicants to pay for drug testing is headed for a vote on the Senate floor after receiving party-line support in the Senate Health Committee Wednesday.
Senate Bill 594 would require all applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as WorkFirst in North Carolina, to pay upfront for testing for all controlled substances. If the tests are negative, applicants would be reimbursed for the tests. If they test positive, they would be ineligible for benefits.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, says the measure is intended to fight substance abuse.
"I believe that drug abuse in our society is the scourge of our society," Davis said. "I think every kid, regardless of their skin color or their economic circumstance, deserves a drug-free home. This is just one step to reach toward that goal."
"I think that it's very important that we don't continue to fund drug problems with state funds," added Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell.
Critics of the bill pointed out studies that show the rate of drug use among welfare recipients is actually lower than in the overall population.
A similar program in Florida found that 2.6 percent of applicants tested positive. In its first four months, Florida's program ended up costing the state money until it was suspended by the courts.
Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said people poor enough to qualify for TANF would likely have trouble paying for the testing, even with the promise of reimbursement later.
If the true goal of the bill is to cut drug abuse, she said, then everyone who receives cash from the government ought to be required to undergo testing.
"We ought to have them right here at the General Assembly," Robinson said. "We seem to be constantly targeting the same particular segment of society."
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, called the proposal "arbitrary and capricious."
"You cannot just test somebody without probable cause or reasonable suspicion" under the Fourth Amendment, Kinnaird said.
Similar laws in other states have been suspended after courts found them unconstitutional.
The state currently has 21,124 people enrolled in WorkFirst. At an average $100 per person for testing, the state could be liable for reimbursements of more than $2.1 million.
In addition, all adults living in a household applying for benefits would likely have to be tested under the proposal, so the total testing cost could potentially be much higher.
"DSS cannot reimburse from TANF funds," Kinnaird pointed out, "so the counties are going to have to come up with this money."
Davis denied the cost would be prohibitive. "The kids deserve it," he said.
Chairman Sen. Louis Pate pronounced the measure approved before he called for the no votes.
Its next stop is the Senate floor, where it could get a vote this week.