ESPC: Need for drug tests questioned; Sending message trumps lack of need for bill, sponsor says

On Wednesday, Feb.29, Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center wrote about a bill to require drug testing for those applying for public assistance, and the debate over the bill in the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee:

Drug testing people who apply for public assistance may not save taxpayers any money and likely is unnecessary because Wyoming’s POWER program already imposes strict job training and other performance requirements on participants.

The Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee considered House Bill 82 – Public assistance- drug testing Wednesday morning. The bill will require testing of applicants for illegal drug use to qualify for the public assistance program.

Sponsors of the bill learned, apparently for the first time, that when Wyoming reformed its welfare program in the 1990s, it eliminated incentives to stay on assistance rather than take a job, according to Sen. Charles Scott. The benefit payments are very low and a family must be dirt poor to qualify.

Yet one sponsor of the proposed law said that lack of need for the testing no longer matters.

News coverage of the proposed bill has been so broad that killing the bill now will send the wrong message to the state, Sen. Ray Petersen, SD19, R-Cowley, told the committee.

“Perhaps it is sufficient,” the senator said after hearing that case workers who oversee people enrolled in the Personal Opportunities with Employment Responsibilities (POWER) program can order a drug test and treatment if they believe an enrollee has a substance abuse problem, including an alcohol problem. (HB 82 does not address alcohol abuse.)

But choosing to drop the proposal now will send a message “that we’re not going to impose these rules,” Petersen said. Describing his constituents as “ultra-conservative,” he said he signed on the bill as a co-sponsor because the people he represents wanted him to do so.

“The reason is the frustration of the taxpayer,” he said. “They want solutions … it’s not so much money, it’s the incentive to make the right choices and getting off the dole.” He conceded, however, that HB82 “may be overkill.”

Committee Chairman Scott, SD30, R-Casper, told sponsors that because of welfare reform in the 1990s, “I’m telling my constituents that we’ve driven the people off who have the drug problems.”

Scott noted that virtually all the people who now qualify for the program face a significant life crisis, such as a divorce or have left an abusive home.

The committee decided to continue working the bill and will resume discussing it at a Friday meeting. Sen. John Schiffer said he would offer an amendment to require drug tests of all applicants and existing program participants “on a random basis.” Several people speaking at the meeting said random tests are far more likely to discourage illegal drug use because people can prepare for a scheduled test.

Concerns that the tests would be required of grandparents taking care of children handling the assistance for qualified grandchildren were brushed off by Schiffer. “If Granny’s number is up, her number is up,” he said.

The Wyoming Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the bill is unconstitutional because it singles out a select group of people for the testing without probable cause.

Rep. Marty Martin, SD12, D-Superior, said that the cost of the program could be higher than anticipated. He noted that a random testing program monitoring for a full panel of drugs would be far more expensive than the typical $35 per-test cost cited by sponsor Rep. David Miller, HD55, R-Riverton. Using Miller’s figure, Department of Family Services officials estimated the cost of simply testing the average of 68 monthly applicants would cost the state about $27,000.

The bill specifically protects benefits for qualified children even if their parent or parents fail a drug test. The Equality State Policy Center noted that if a parent is disqualified, a designee assigned by them or the Department of Family Services would accept benefits for the disqualified parent’s child. But those payments subsequently are likely to be handed over to the parent who failed a test but has custody of the child.

And under the bill, there would be no help for a parent to obtain treatment for abusing illegal drugs.

(Read the Associated Press report on the Wednesday hearing here.)

Guy V. Padgett has been with WyoFile since October of 2011. He serves as WyoFile’s operations director

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