RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — One of several Republican bills that would compel drug tests for welfare recipients has sailed through a key committee toward a final House vote by week’s end.
Del. Richard P. Bell’s bill — one of at least 11 similar GOP-backed measures — would require initial screening of people seeking temporary aid for needy families under the Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare program.
Other Republican bills introduced this year would require community service or drug testing of people who seek unemployment benefits.
Welfare recipients or applicants who show signs of illegal drug use in a urine test screening would have blood drawn for more definitive tests. Those who fail would forfeit benefits for at least a year and would have to go through the screening and testing process to receive approval.
Democrats decried the bill as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, and Del. Joseph Morrissey, D-Henrico, noted that a similar law had been struck down and halted by a federal court in Florida.
“I am aware of that, but I am also aware that that the Florida bill did not have the screening component that our bill has,” Bell said.
Del. Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake, asked whether a subsequent expansion of mandatory drug testing should apply to others who receive state money or benefits, including state employees, college presidents, even state legislators.
“What about us in the General Assembly? Why don’t we do drug tests on us? We make a big $17,600 a year, and that’s taxpayer money,” Spruill said.
Bell replied, “I don’t think that’s necessarily the next logical step, but I would say this: people who aren’t using illegal drugs don’t have anything to worry about.”
A sponsor of an identical bill that was absorbed into Bell’s, freshman Del. Christopher Head, R-Botetourt, said he’s heard anecdotal tales from constituents about illegal drug use by welfare recipients. But when reporters pressed him for examples or evidence, he said it would be revealed by the testing.
In Florida, more than 7,000 welfare recipients who were tested for illegal drugs were found to be clean while just 32 people failed the test, according to that state’s Department of Children and Families.
After being told of Florida’s pass rate of more than 98 percent, Head shot back, “This isn’t Florida. This is Virginia. I don’t care what they did in Florida.”
The testing’s cost is estimated at $1.3 million a year, but Head said the figure seems unreasonably high. He said the $350-per-test figure on which the state bases its fiscal impact is about 10 times higher than the costs of tests he requires for employees of his home-health care business for seniors.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)