Video: Senate Votes Down Second Bill Requiring Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

Senator Judy Lee (R-Fargo) speaks against legislation to implement drug testing for welfare recipients.

Earlier this session the state Senate voted down SB2279, introduced by Senator Tom Campbell, which would have implemented drug testing for welfare recipients.

Today the Senate took up a version of this same bill, though this one originated in the House and passed there last month.

HB1308 would require that TANF (welfare) recipients participating in an employment plan be drug tested. If they test positive, they would be referred to the proper addiction counseling services. There is no penalty in the bill for a positive test. There are consequences in existing law for failing to comply with the program itself.

The bill met with familiar opposition. Senator Judy Lee (R-Fargo) said it would be “just one more insult” to TANF recipients. She called it an “unnecessary obstacle to helping people past a really terrible time in their lives” and added that many of the jobs where these people would be placed “require drug testing anyway.”

“Asking why a person is poor has value,” Senator Joan Heckaman (D-New Rockford) told the Senate floor, “but not for the purpose of denying them help.” She said this bill would turn the state’s social programs into “cold and mean” services and suggested that the state already does not “adequately fund substance abuse programs.”

But supporters of the legislation pointed out that it’s not about denying benefits but rather helping people.

“This is a program to help people before it gets bad,” Senator Curt Kreun (R-Grand Forks) said. Senator Oley Larsen (R-Minot) described it as “a bill to shine a light on people with addiction.”

“If we don’t do it now when do we intervene?” asked Senator Terry Wanzek (R-Jamestown).

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I care very little about whether or not this sort of requirement is perceived as “mean” or an “insult.” People who ask the taxpayers for assistance must understand that the assistance may come with some strings attached. I like the idea of trying to identify people on public assistance programs who are struggling with an addiction problem, not for the purpose of denying them benefits but rather to enhance help.

It seems counterproductive to be trying to place people in jobs who are simultaneously abusing drugs. What, exactly, would we be accomplishing?

That said, the efficacy of this policy isn’t at all clear. In other states where drug testing for those on public assistance has been implemented to one degree or another we’ve seen very few positive tests even while the costs of testing are significant.

It’s a nice idea to try and detect people on public assistance who have an addiction problem, but sometimes what sounds right on paper or in a political debate doesn’t turned out to be sound applied policy.

Besides, this bill wouldn’t apply to all that many people. Per Senator Lee’s comments during the floor debate, there are only four counties in the state with more than 100 TANF households which would be impacted by this policy. And the courts have ruled that a more broad sort of testing isn’t legal.

The bill would seem to institute a lot of hassle to drug test relatively few people with little evidence that we’d achieve the sort of outcomes we want from it.

This bill failed on a 21-25 vote, and I’m ok with that.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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