By Rose Hoban
A bill requiring recipients of welfare benefits to submit to drug testing passed through committee last week and is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Monday night.
The bill, Senate Bill 594, would mandate that recipients of Work First, North Carolina’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, pay for a comprehensive drug-screening test at a cost of between $50 and $150. The county would reimburse the cost of the test if it comes back negative. Testing for alcohol would not be included in the screening.
If a drug test comes back positive for illegal or unprescribed substances, the person would be ineligible for benefits for one year.
Currently, about 21,412 heads of families receive the Work First funds statewide.
“I believe that drug abuse is the scourge of our society,” said bill sponsor Sen. Jim Davis (R-Franklin), “and from a local-government perspective, drug abuse causes a plethora of problems in our health care system, our law-enforcement system, our school system – in every aspect of our society.
“And this, to me, is just one step. I think every kid, regardless of their skin color or economic circumstance, deserves a drug-free home.”
A similar program in Florida was in operation for about four months and resulted in the state paying more for testing than would have been saved by withholding benefits. Florida also found that only about 2.6 percent of TANF recipients abused drugs, a lower rate than reported in the general public.
The Florida program was suspended when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that it violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
Those same concerns were raised by Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Carrboro), who called the measure “arbitrary and capricious and not sound constitutional law.”
“And it isn’t sound fiscal law for counties to come up with monies that they don’t have,” she added.
ACLU lobbyist Sarah Preston said she believes the testing would violate the Fourth Amendment, calling it a “suspicionless, warrantless, wholesale testing of thousands of North Carolinians.”
She said that despite the fact that it would be a urine test, the procedure is invasive.
“Any biological analysis is a search of the person,” Preston said. “The courts have held for decades that any kind of analysis of a biological sample is definitely a search, definitely protected by the Fourth Amendment, so the government needs a really good reason to do it without a warrant.”
Davis said he isn’t worried about a court challenge.
A ‘tough spot’
Counties are concerned about the cost, said Lori Ann Harris, a lobbyist who represents the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services.
“Counties cannot use those TANF funds to reimburse people who have negative drug tests,” Harris said. And, she said, there’s no money in the bill to pay for reimbursement.
“So this is looking like another unfunded mandate for county social service agencies,” Harris said.
Children’s advocates worry that the cost to families who are in need would be prohibitive.
“The families applying for Work First are in a tough spot,” said Rob Thompson of the Covenant With North Carolina’s Children. Being unable to access services, he said, “can have a significant impact on their ability to provide basics for their families, and that includes their children.”
“There are significant up-front costs to take the drug test,” Thompson said, pointing out that the bill, as written, would require all adults in a household receiving benefits to be tested.
“Drug-free households are a worthy goal,” he said. “But this isn’t the solution to achieve that goal.
“Supporting drug-treatment options is going to be a better way to ensure that kids aren’t growing up in families where there is substance abuse.”
UPDATE – Apr 22, 8:30 pm: SB 594 passed the Senate on a vote of 35-15. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.