The state ACLU and state Democrats were quick to criticize House Speaker Thom Tillis's remarks on drug testing and public assistance.
Drug testing requirements for public benefits have been in the headlines this week. They're already in place in several states, most recently Florida, where people who get cash benefits have to pay for their own drug tests to remain eligible for help. The state reimburses them if they pass.
Critics of the requirements say testing programs violate personal privacy rights and usually end up costing more money than they save. One program in Michigan was declared unconstitutional. Florida is also being sued by the ACLU over its law, which took effect in July.
At an event at Mars Hill College last Friday, Tillis said he would support mandatory testing in NC. "By gosh, if we come back in 2013, I don’t know if we’ll go as far as Florida, but if you’re receiving government assistance, and every once in a while we want to do random drug tests, done on a fair basis, I think we should do it."
"What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance," Tillis tells the crowd in the Youtube video. "We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition, that needs help, and we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government, and say, at some point, you’re on your own."
Asked to clarify the "divide and conquer" remark, Tillis's spokesman Jordan Shaw offered the following:
"The Speaker simply meant that we need to protect individuals who, through no choice or fault of their own, depend on the state for benefits, and we need to ensure that those individuals are not negatively impacted by a small group of people who may abuse the system," Shaw said. "It's about providing real help to those legitimately in need while protecting our programs from fraud, waste and abuse."
State Democratic Party Chairman David Parker took a less benign view of the comment. "As usual, Speaker Thom Tillis is focused on dividing North Carolinians instead of bringing them together," Parker said in a statement. "By trying to humiliate our most underprivileged and poverty-stricken citizens it's clear that Thom Tillis is nothing more than a school-yard bully—he should be ashamed of himself.”
“Representative Tillis will say or do almost anything to distract from his miserable economic record as Speaker of the House. He needs to spend less time thinking about how to divide and conquer North Carolinians and more time following Governor Perdue’s lead on working to recruit new jobs and industry to our state,” said Parker.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina also weighed in.
“Drug testing as a requirement for public assistance is not only a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights, but notoriously ineffective,” said state ACLU director Jennifer Rudinger. “Testing every public aid recipient or state employee, regardless of their job or whether or not they are suspected of drug use, would represent an egregious, wasteful, and unjustified invasion of privacy for potentially millions of North Carolinians.”