Drug testing is a surefire way of ensuring no one using drugs is receiving government subsidies, said N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, a primary sponsor of the legislation.
“I think every kid in North Carolina deserves a home free of drugs,” Davis said. “We also don’t want taxpayer money to be incentivizing anyone to do bad behavior.”
The bill applies to people in the Work First Family Assistance program — an umbrella for several financial aid programs for the needy — but the senator said that he would like to expand the requirement to all public assistance programs in the future.
Some department of social services directors in the state have spoken out against the bill, as has the N.C. Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I have serious concerns about the constitutionality and the civil rights of our clients,” said Bob Cochran, director of the Jackson County Department of Social Services.
Florida passed similar legislation a couple of years ago; however, it was never put into effect. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, claiming the legislation is unconstitutional and violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure without cause.
The N.C. Chapter of ACLU has not said whether it will take legal action if the bill passes, but Davis said he fully expects a court case to arise from the bill.
“There will be some group that will challenge it, but we have to get serious in this country about attacking the illegal drug abuse,” Davis said.
Currently, only people with known drug problems are tested, and in cases where a child’s welfare is in question.
“We don’t make people submit to tests randomly,” said Ira Dove, director of the Haywood County Department of Social Services. “There is usually evidence of drug use.”
The N.C. Senate bill does not say what type of drug testing applicants for aid must undergo or what drugs the test will look for.
N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, called the bill “unnecessarily mean-spirited.”
“It is just the Republicans trying to be tough on the poor people,” Queen said. “We need to create some jobs and help the poor people.”
N.C. Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville, on the other hand, supports the bill.
Presnell’s office replied to a call for comment with an emailed statement, saying a former DSS director told her “many of the people busted for drugs were Work First and other public welfare program recipients.”
But according to Dove and Cochran, that is not the case — at least as far as Work First recipients are concerned. Both said that based on their interactions with program participants, the vast majority of the drug tests will come back negative.
“These folks are motivated to obtain gainful employment. In my experience, their incidence of drug abuse is at or below that of the rest of the community,” said Cochran. “They are not by and large drug users.”
Picking up the bill
The bill could also leave counties paying the tab on an unfunded mandate.
If passed into law, those applying for the program would pay the cost of the drug test up front, which could run anywhere from $50 to $150 per person. If the test comes back negative, applicants will be reimbursed the full amount, but the bill doesn’t indicate where the money will come from, which is troubling to Dove.
As far as Dove knows federal money cannot be used, and the state has not committed to covering the costs, leaving only one other source.
“From the best I can calculate, that would be with county dollars,” Dove said.
If the tests end up costing $100 each, Haywood County could spend more than $30,000 on drug tests for its more than 300 Work First participants. For larger counties with more Work First recipients, the cost would be exponentially more.
“It was not an insignificant amount of money,” Queen said.
State leaders, particularly Davis, have spoken out against unfunded mandates coming down from the state to counties. Davis said he will work to fit money into the state budget bill to cover drug test reimbursement, but it’s not a done deal.
“We are still working on that. I am not one for big unfunded mandates,” Davis said. Without a state allocation, “That would fall upon the local government, and that is not my intention.”
By making Work First applicants cover the cost of the drug test initially, the bill could weed out people who know they will fail the test, but it could also make others think twice about applying if they don’t have the extra money.
“If they really need the benefit, they can get the money because it will be reimbursed,” Davis said.
However, that still could be difficult for some to come up with an extra $50 to $100 up front if don’t have a steady source of income.
“They don’t have jobs for the most part. They don’t have household income for the most part when they first come here,” Dove said.
If someone fails the test, he or she is ineligible for Work First benefit for a year unless he or she independently enrolls in and completes a substance abuse program. Those who fail subsequent drug tests are ineligible for three years.