Lawmakers rush to co-sponsor welfare drug testing

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Legislation that would require welfare recipients to be tested for drug use is gaining popularity among Kentucky lawmakers, more than 50 of whom have signed on as co-sponsors.

It doesn't matter that the measure stands little chance of passing into law. In a legislative election year, incumbents want their names on proposals that tend to be popular with blue-collar voters, as this one is.

"Everybody says they're for it," said state Rep. Lonnie Napier, the Lancaster Republican who has been pushing the measure for the past two years. "I can't go anywhere unless I'm stopped by people, and they tell me they support that bill and ask, 'How can I help you?'"

Napier, a relentless cheerleader for the proposal, said businesses typically require employees to pass a drug screening. Why, he asks, would welfare recipients not be held to the same standard?

Legislation was filed in 36 states last year, but passed only in Arizona, Florida and Missouri. Florida is under a federal court injunction that's blocking implementation of the drug-testing program there.

So far this year, measures have been introduced in 24 states that would require testing of people receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In 14 states, the proposals would require testing of people receiving any type of welfare assistance, including food stamps.

Few are likely to pass, including the one in Kentucky that is expected to be quashed by state Rep. Tom Burch, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee. Burch said he didn't allow a vote on the proposal in his committee last year, and he said he had no intention of relenting this time around.

The Louisville Democrat said the bill unfairly targets the neediest of Kentucky residents - single mothers and children who depend on welfare programs for survival.

"I don't think much of it," Burch said. "There's nothing in the bill that protects the child. All it does is single out poor people. I wanted to amend it so that every business that takes state or federal money has their employees checked twice a year in order for them to continue to qualify. That's the only way I'd ever let that bill out."

Burch, of course, realizes that such an amendment would ensure it couldn't pass the full state legislature.

Napier brushes aside arguments from critics that the bill essentially punishes children for the behavior of parents who use drugs. He said he has softened the language in his bill to require drug screenings only when welfare workers have strong reason to believe a recipient is using. He also included a requirement for welfare recipients to pay for drug testing if the results are positive, an attempt to silence critics who said the proposal would increase the cost of the state's welfare program.

Napier, who has served in the legislature since 1985, has picked up most of the House Republican delegation as co-sponsors and several Democrats, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former House Speaker Jody Richards.

Some of the state's most conservative voices have spoken in favor of Napier's proposal, despite constitutional concerns.

"Protecting taxpayers and individual rights of welfare recipients seem in conflict on this issue, but Rep. Napier's bill handles the problem better than any other effort in the nation," said tea party activist David Adams. "Federal courts have ruled repeatedly that people applying for benefits can't be drug tested either universally or at random because of the Constitution's restriction on unreasonable searches and seizures. House Bill 26 requires a finding of probable cause and the courts have made clear that is necessary for this kind of government action."

Adams said widespread drug testing of welfare recipients "as a fishing expedition" could cost more than it would save. But he said Napier's new approach of testing only those who show signs of drug use wouldn't be financially burdensome.

Michael Aldridge, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said he's hopeful the legislation stays mired in Burch's committee.

"Basically, it's a violation of an individual's right to privacy," Aldridge said. "Most every American uses federal government funds on some level, whether it be for health benefits, or whether it be to the extreme of receiving welfare. And we don't think that one individual's rights should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. We're not testing every American who receives any type of federal benefit."

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