The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

March 27, 2013

Welfare drug testing bill appears dead in the water

CHARLESTON — No eulogy has been delivered yet, but a fourth effort to compel random drug testing of welfare recipients and West Virginians getting an unemployment check is dead in the water.

With less than three weeks left, it’s obvious to two key supporters of the bill that it is dying a slow death, and there is little hope of breathing life into it in this session.

“It’s probably not going to see the light this year,” freshman Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, conceded Tuesday.

Another freshman lawmaker, Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who tried three times as a delegate to impose drug screens on public assistance recipients, agreed.

“From a political, practical standpoint, it’s not going to happen this year,” he said.

“It would take a miracle. It’s not going to be passed from the Senate. But if a bill comes over from the House, perhaps we can get it single referenced. I’m the eternal optimist.”

Carmichael realized early on that the bill, which also would test anyone getting an unemployent check, had little chance of getting through his chamber after Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, assigned it to three committees — normally a death sentence for legislation. Even bills sent to only two committees tinged with controversy face an uphill climb.

Hall and Carmichael said their constituents overwhelmingly support the idea, which also contains a provision that members of the Legislature be exposed to the same random testing.

“It’s going about 90 percent to 10, but we can’t get it moving,” Carmichael said.

“Facebook, e-mails, twitter, phone calls — just overwhelmingly supportive of this concept. Most of the comments I get take a harsher approach.”

Voters have told Carmichael to forget the counseling and the rehabilitation measures in the bill, because the addicted engaged deliberately and willfully in harmful behavior.

“And there’s some validity to that,” he said.

“What we’ve crafted here is a bill that addressed everyone’s concerns, making sure your tax dollars are not going to feed an addiction to drugs. We’re identifying and providing a deterrent for those who want to use drugs and be on public assistance. There’s a deterrent by submitting to random drug testing and we provide counseling programs that people can get into.”

If this legislation is doomed, Hall suggested reform-minded lawmakers turn their attention to another tack — a welfare-to-work law.

“We need a major overhaul of the welfare system,” he said.

“We’re not trying to cut it out. That’s not the goal. We want to provide help to people who need help. But they can help themselves, too. We’ve gone too far down the path and need to start coming back.”

The idea is to tighten the rules so that a welfare check isn’t the end-all to sustaining lives.

“We want to give things away in this country and we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

“If you’re going to be on public assistance, you’re not going to get it free. Maybe report to work and pick up trash, or be in litter control, or cut brush in the summer. West Virginians are very, very generous. But I don’t think we should not be getting something back. Just give somebody a check and just sit at the house? They could do something.”

Hall said he finds it puzzling that opponents to the welfare drug test bill raise the issue of constitutionality, when employers in the private sector routinely require screens for prospective and current employees.

All the bill does is provide random testing once someone enters public assistance, not require drug screens as a prerequisite to start getting a check, the senator said.

“If I’ve had 1,000 people say they support it, I’ve had two say they didn’t,” Hall said.

“It’s just off the charts. Probably the highest polling issue in our area. I can’t imagine anything polling higher in our area.”

If a legal question arises, Hall said, then let the courts decide.

What’s more, the bill allows for rehabilitation and counseling and provides that children of recipients will continue to get the use of benefits.

“We’re not going to lock them in jail, or kick them out of the country, or seize their property,” Hall said of those testing positive.

“But to qualify for this program, you have to agree to be randomly drug tested. To me, that’s just a requirement of the program. Like other qualifications — be low income, or no income, and a U.S. citizen. I’m assuming you have to be a U.S. citizen. Now I’m starting to wonder about that.”

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