Legislators argue for welfare-mandatory-drug testing

Posted at 1:56 PM, Jan 25, 2012
and last updated 2012-02-23 15:02:45-05
RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)  - Should welfare recipients be required to undergo drug testing?

It’s a debate before lawmakers this General Assembly session, and both sides are fiercely arguing the legislation’s merits.

Desamona Hicks, a resident of Creighton Court, says the prospect is baffling.   Hicks has been lobbying lawmakers to stop deep spending cuts to family welfare programs that she says benefit her family.

“People need help,” argues Hicks.

Hicks says the idea that the state could divert money from welfare programs to help pay for other services, like drug testing welfare recipients, is disappointing.

“That’s a waste of money that could be applied to something else,” says Hicks.  “ Money for one drug test could be applied to a family of three that needs help.”

State Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell is proposing legislation that would require drug testing for Virginia’s welfare recipients to determine whether they use illegal drugs.

Bell says unlike legislation in Florida, that was blocked by a federal judge, HB73 would only require testing for individuals who don’t pass a screening test.

“It’s not designed to be punitive, it’s just designed to clean up this whole process so that the money that’s in the program goes to the people who can benefit most from it,” Bell says.

On Tuesday, the bill cleared the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee by a 14-8 vote, despite heated debate from democratic leaders.

Several democrats argue the bill is simply unconstitutional because it doesn’t consider probable cause.

Delegate Joe Morrissey is among the lawmakers arguing the legislation unfairly targets poor people.

“They tried this in Florida and the federal judge ruled it unconstitutional,” says Morrissey. “You can’t just drug test somebody to try to find something that is illegal and penalize them.”

Democrats are also raising the question of expense.  A fiscal analysis report indicates the testing would cost 1.3 million annually.  The drug test would cost $345 per person.

Bell and Republican Delegate Chris Head, who’s proposing similar legislation, believe that cost is exaggerated.

However, Bell says if a new law would lead to exorbitant costs, he would be willing to scratch the legislation.

“I don’t’ think we’re trying to cost the taxpayers or state more money,” says Bell.  “I wouldn’t want those agencies to spent their limited funds paying for the testing.”

The bill is now in the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, which will determine and approve the funding.