In a surprising twist, the Senate voted last week to have a drug-testing measure apply to some lawmakers as well as some recipients of cash assistance and unemployment benefits. But that evenhanded gesture hardly justifies passage of the problematic bill.
Proponents of the legislation insist it’s not meant to be punitive, but rather to identify drug abusers and provide them with treatment and job-skills help. They also want to ensure that benefits to children continue but bypass a drug-using parent or guardian.
But a drug test would be ordered whenever there is a reasonable suspicion that someone receiving or applying for cash aid is unlawfully using a controlled substance. Do the employees who deal with these individuals know substance abuse when they see it? Or would the state just invite lawsuits from those deemed suspicious because of their demeanor or otherwise?
The measure also mandates that employers notify the Kansas Department of Labor whenever someone receiving unemployment benefits is denied a job because he fails or refuses a drug test. But in its first year on the books, a similar law in Georgia drew a total of one such report from an employer.
As Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, noted in voting against the bill, there also are too many unanswered questions about cost and treatment. Estimates offered during the four-hour Senate debate put the cost of drug treatment at $2,200 to $6,300 per person, with the funding coming from already limited federal dollars for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The official estimated cost of implementing the bill next year is $1 million – including $461,000 from the state general fund at a time when the state has a budget shortfall.
As Democratic senators noted in offering several amendments, many other Kansans get state benefits, via the tax code or economic development initiatives. When casting the net for potential drug abusers who receive state help, why pick on the poorest and most vulnerable Kansans – those on welfare – and on those who’ve lost their jobs?
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, observed that his bill is different from Florida’s 2011 law, which required every welfare applicant to be tested for drug use. But as a federal appeals court last week upheld a lower court’s decision to stop enforcement of Florida’s law, pointing to the constitutional protection from unreasonable searches, it cited that state’s lack of evidence “that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior.” Such evidence is lacking in the Kansas legislative debate as well, though that assumed link seems to be the motivation for such bills.
The bill also ignores the primary reason Kansans enter treatment for addiction, which is alcohol.
Senate Bill 149 is troubling for the population it targets and the legal and other questions it raises. The House should just say “no.”
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman