A bill that would allow for drug testing of adult Kentuckians who receive public assistance will receive a hearing this week, but the legislation’s sponsor and committee chairman are jousting over the proposal.
The bill would set up random blood and urine testing for those who get welfare benefits, food stamps, Medicaid and other state assistance. Similar legislation has been introduced across the country with mixed results in different states.
In Wyoming, state lawmakers rejected a similar bill, but around two dozen other states are considering such measures to have stricter rules.
In Kentucky, state Rep. Lonnie Napier, R-Lancaster, is the bill’s sponsor. He says here is too much fraud in the welfare system and his proposal would help get recipients off illegal drugs.
“People are abusing the system and using say for instance a lot of cases their food stamps and trading them for drugs. It’s just not fair for the taxpayers to have to keep up an illegal drug habit. And also, what I’m trying to do is help families and children that live in the homes where this is going on,” he says.
The legislation has support in both parties and dozens of co-sponsors, including House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. It is scheduled to have a hearing on Thursday, however, House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Tom Burch, D-Louisville, has only put the bill up for discussion and won’t allow a vote to be taken.
Burch says there are some people who abuse the system, but that most welfare recipients are struggling to stay above water financially and the measure would fail a court challenge.
“The bill quite frankly is unconstitutional,” he says. “On its surface it sounds great: get deadbeats off the taxpayers back. But only a very small percentage of people are abusers of the welfare system. And why would I penalize 97 percent of the people for 3 percent?”
In Florida, the law requires all public assistance applicants be drug tested and the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the measure in court.
Critics have added the proposal unfairly targets the poor, stigmatizes welfare recipients and could possibly hurt their children. But Napier argues he is trying to help families plagued by drugs and that this law would weed out abuse.
Under Napier’s proposal, adults on welfare would be subject to random testing if probable cause was found by a caseworker. It would give recepients a 60-day grace period to enter a drug treatment program if they test positive and would require those individuals to pay for the test.
After two months, individuals must show evidence of having entered a drug rehab program within two weeks, during which time, benefits may be suspended and transferred to another adult if the individuals have children.
“He’s picking on the poor. He’s not picking on the rich,” says Burch. “Why not have every business that takes government subsidies have their employees tested twice a year? What’s the difference whether you got business welfare or people welfare? I’m not going to single out the poor and have them take the brunt of it.”
Napier says Kentucky lawmakers would pass his bill in the Democratic-controlled House if Burch gives if a fair chance. He criticized the process and said committee chairman shouldn’t be able to unilaterally block the legislation.
“I’ll tell you I don’t think any one person should have that kind of power. People don’t like that in Washington, they don’t like it in Kentucky and I think it should be heard and an up or down vote taken,” he says.