The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 21, 2013

Green plugs welfare drug test bill

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — In an emotion-charged floor speech, Sen. Mike Green appealed to the Senate leadership Wednesday to push a stalled bill to test West Virginia recipients of welfare and unemployment checks randomly for drug abuse.

Green is a co-sponsor of a Republican-led effort that would subject those on the dole, along with legislators, to random drug testing — mirroring laws on the book in other states.

Turning his plea into a personal one, Green told of a young relative, once an all-state athlete with a bright future ahead, who became mired in prescription pills a decade ago while pocketing public assistance.

“For the last 10 years, he battled that demon while his family had to sit and watch,” Green, D-Raleigh, told fellow senators.

Last Friday, at 3:30 a.m., in search of a fix, he ambled down the center of a Wyoming County road and was fatally struck by a coal truck, the senator said.

“For the last eight years, that public assistance fed his drug problem,” Green said.

“Luckily, he didn’t have an immediate family, but he was on public assistance. He did nothing with that assistance, absolutely nothing productive, nothing constructive, except purchase illegal drugs. He fed his habit. His mother took care of him. He lived with his grandmother.”

Before his 10-minute address, Green passed out copies of an editorial that appeared in Wednesday’s edition of his hometown newspaper, The Register-Herald, with a strong call for the Senate to take up the bill, now idle in the Health and Human Resources Committee. The bill was triple-referenced, normally a death sentence for any proposal. If it leaves the first committee, it would need to clear the judiciary and finance committees as well.

Green also alluded to a front-page Register-Herald story this week, quoting him and Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, voicing their frustrations that the health panel’s chairman, Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, hasn’t run the bill. Stollings has said he is concerned over the potential costs of administering the drug screens.

Afterward, Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said he would talk to Stollings about it the bill, although he has reservations about targeting those on assistance and members of the Legislature.

“I think we may stereotypically think the drug addiction only affects those folks (welfare and unemployment recipients) and it doesn’t,” Kessler said. “It’s an equal opportunity destroyer that goes across all the socio-economics, from the country clubs in this state to the Section 8 housing. It’s across the board.”

Even if the Legislature agreed to zero in on the dole, he said, a significant amount of money would have to be laid out to treat those hooked.

“Find a treatment center in this state,” Kessler said.

“There’s not enough. We need to put more money into treatment, into treatment centers.”

Kessler said he dislikes the idea of including the Legislature in random testing, calling this “inappropriate.”

“We may be sending a message to the public that legislators have a drug problem down here,” he said.

“Lord knows, they beat us up enough without having to think we’re drug addicts.”

Green acknowledged that two main objections have been raised, particularly the constitutional question that has put Florida’s mandatory, test-all bill on hold, following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, citing protections contained in the 4th Amendment.

“We should not wait to see what the Florida court rules before we continue discussion on this issue,” the senator said.

A few years ago, Green recalled his reluctance to support a similar proposal out of concern the children of recipients would go hungry if their parents’ benefits were yanked away.

Under the bill, however, he pointed out, an initial test positive gives a recipient one to two months to get into treatment, and, if a follow-up screen again shows one to be soiled, the checks are pulled for a full year.

But in that suspension, Green emphasized, a third-party administrator can guarantee that children in such homes are provided with life’s necessities.

“If, at the end of those 60 days, and this individual decides not to come clean, what really is worse than putting those children back in those homes where the parents don’t care enough or don’t have the ability to address those issues?” he asked.

“To me, it’s more dangerous, putting those kids back in those households.”

Green pointed to the Senate’s unanimous passage of a massive education reform package — destined for a similar fate Friday in the House of Delegates — and noted its overriding goal is to improve student achievement.

“You tell me, what’s more important for student achievement than putting those kids in a home with an opportunity to learn, with an opportunity to have a full belly when they come to school?”

The bill was offered early on in this session by two freshman Republicans, Craig Blair of Berkeley County, and Mitch Carmichael of Jackson, with Democratic support. For the past few years, the two tried similar bills while serving in the House of Delegates.

Green reminded the chamber of a media report denoting Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, Logan and Boone as the “five unhealthiest” counties in the state.

“It’s not a coincidence,” he said.

“We have a high rate of people on public assistance and we have an enormous rate of people dependent on illegal and illicit drugs. We can continue to bury our heads in the sand. We can continue to say the 4th Amendment protects these folks. But who’s protecting the children? Who’s going to look out for the children. It’s real. If we don’t address it, who will?”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com