Drug testing for benefits bill passes Senate

Senators passed the bill, but rejected an amendment to require drug testing for public officials as well as those seeking WorkFirst benefits.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Applicants the welfare program known as WorkFirst would need to pass a drug test before enrolling in the program under a bill that passed the state Senate Monday night.

The measure, which passed 35-15, now goes to the House.

There are currently 21,124 people in North Carolina enrolled in WorkFirst, a program that provides cash payments to people looking for jobs. It is targeted to the parents of young children.

"Every kid in North Carolina deserves to live in a drug-free home," said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, the bill's sponsor. 

Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said the bill violates the U.S. Constitution because it calls for a blanket search of people who haven't otherwise raised suspicion.

The measure requires those seeking benefits to pay for the drug tests. If the tests are negative, applicants would be reimbursed for the tests. If they test positive, they would be ineligible for benefits. At an average of $100 per person for testing, the state could be liable for reimbursements of more than $2.1 million.

"The impact of this bill, if not the intent, is to hurt the most vulnerable," Bryant said.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said that 20 percent of his high school graduating class has either served time in jail or died due to drug-related activity. The bill, he pointed out, sends people to treatment if they test positive.

"We have to be aware of how we are creating and we are funding this problem in our communities," Hise said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, offered an amendment to the bill that would have required drug tests for lawmakers, members of the Council of State and cabinet secretaries.

"We represent the law, we institute policy, so it should not be above any of us to submit to drug screening," Robinson explained. 

Davis objected, saying he did not mind being drug tested. But, he said, if he tested negative, the state should have to repay him. There was no mechanism in Robinson's amendment to provide for such repayment. 

Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca sent forward a substitute amendment. That process kept senators from having to take a potentially embarrassing vote on Robinson's amendment and prevents the amendment from returning in some later debate. Apodaca's substitution, which was approved, merely calls for a report on the success or failure of the program.

"We seem to be getting into a situation where we're kind of getting above the people," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, the Senate minority leader. Not everyone, he said, has $100 to spend on a drug test, especially those seeking subsistence payments from the state.

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