The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 19, 2013

Lack of peer support for welfare drug testing frustrates senators

CHARLESTON — Two southern lawmakers feel legislation they helped sponsor to test welfare recipients for drug misuse could work wonders in raising student academic progress by improving their home environments.

With this session now in the second half, however, Senate leaders have shown no interest in random testing of folks getting a welfare check or unemployment benefits.

And Sens. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, and Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, say the Senate is passing up a major opportunity to improve work in the classroom by helping rid some homes of illegal drugs.

Green finds it ironic that the Legislature has concerned itself largely with reforming education, as proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

“Probably the best thing we can do for these children as far as increasing student achievement is to do whatever we can to ensure the safe home life,” Green said Monday as the Senate prepared to take up the massive education package.

Green acknowledged the drug scourge is “a multi-faceted, very complex problem” but insisted the drug bill, offered early on by freshman Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, can take a major stride toward giving children in troubled homes a chance to succeed.

Dysfunctional homes, exacerbated by drug abuse, account for a plethora of horror stories Hall says he has picked up from teachers.

In his 9th District, in fact, across the state, Hall said, teachers spend the first three hours of a class day cleaning up children, acting as counselors and trying to get some nutritional food in t hem.

“These kids are exposed to anything under the sun,” the freshman senator said.

“We’re not educating. We’re crisis management in so many cases. There are lots of stories these teachers tell us. Kids are blunt, honest. They’ll come to school, telling how they pulled a needle out of Mommy’s arm over the weekend. They didn’t get anything to eat. They couldn’t wake Mommy or Daddy up. Or Daddy beat Mommy up. How do you expect them to get an education?”

Granted, not all children from such homes are depending on government assistance, but Hall said the drug bill would be one way of addressing that part of the problem.

“You can have the best teachers on the planet,” he said.

“If students are not getting any support at home, or getting any direction at home, or are exposed to a bad environment, there’s no way they’re going to be successful in school.”

The idea is to direct anyone getting a public check to counseling with one to two months of testing positive. One year later, if the recipient still isn’t clean, the benefits are not sent to the abuser directly, but a third party administers them to the family, so the children aren’t denied support, Green pointed out.

“The argument is that this is going to hurt children, but I don’t buy that,” Green said.

“When you look at the public opinion polls, when you look at all the issues that are our there, it’s not only popular publicly, but it also would be beneficial. It would help our children, help the epidemic we have with the drug problem in southern West Virginia. To me, this is a no-brainer. I just can’t figure out why it’s not gaining more momentum than it is now.”

The bill is parked in the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, has shown no inclination to take it up. Even if it did clear his panel, the bill would still have to pass muster with judiciary and finance committees before reaching the floor for a vote.

Normally, a triple-referenced bill is dead on arrival, but Green isn’t abandoning hope. This bill also would subject legislators to random drug screens, and while Green has no problem with this, he feels it probably should be taken up in separate legislation.

Once the education bill is finally agreed on, Green said the Senate would still have ample time to work on the welfare drug testing bill before the session closes April 13.

One concern Stollings has expressed is the potential cost of the drug tests, but Green said this would be minimal and shouldn’t be a deterrent to considering the bill.

“To me, after the education bill, this is priority No. 1,” Green said.

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