House Republicans protest lack of vote on welfare drug-testing bill

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comMarch 8, 2012 

FRANKFORT — Six House Republicans boycotted a committee meeting Thursday because the chairman refused to take a vote on a measure that would require random drug testing of people who receive welfare and other public benefits.

But House Health and Welfare chairman Tom Burch said House Bill 26 would have been defeated if the committee had taken a vote.

"I didn't want to embarrass him," Burch, D-Louisville, said of Rep. Lonnie Napier, the primary sponsor of HB 26. Napier, one of the long est-serving members of the House, announced earlier this year that he was not seeking re-election.

Despite the Republican boycott, Napier, R-Lancaster, presented his bill to the remaining members of the panel. The measure has 64 co-sponsors, more than half of the 100-member House. Napier filed a similar bill last year, but Burch's committee never voted on it.

More than 30 states have considered similar bills in recent years. Last year, a federal judge in Florida declared a similar law unconstitutional, saying it constituted unreasonable search and seizure.

But Napier said he had made several changes to his proposal that addressed constitutional concerns and other problems.

Napier said the drug testing would be random and occur only if there was a suspicion of possible drug abuse. A person who failed a drug test would have 60 days to clear drugs from his or her system before taking a second drug test.

If a person failed a second drug test, he or she would have 14 days to enroll in drug treatment. If a person did not seek help, the public assistance would be terminated.

Benefits for children in that adult's home would not be terminated, Napier said.

Several Democrats questioned the constitutionality of the provision, saying it would target the poor.

Rep. Jim Glenn, D- Owensboro, questioned whether Napier would ask other people who receive government payments to take drug tests as well.

"Does that include the presidents of our universities, who also receive public assistance?" Glenn asked. "Does that include the superintendents of our public schools, K-12, who also receive public assistance? ... Does it include General Motors, who the government just bailed out? Do we test all of these people? They're all receiving public assistance. I don't want to just test the poor."

Napier said he would not be against an amendment to include state legislators in the measure.

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, also questioned whether there was evidence that the poor abuse drugs more than other groups.

Napier said tests in Florida showed that 6 percent to 7 percent of those on public assistance abused drugs. Owens said the range was 1 percent to 2 percent.

Owens said Napier had no hard facts to show that the poor use drugs disproportionately.

Napier said his proposal had widespread support among Kentuckians who are tired of people using tax dollars to support recreational drug habits.

Many people use food stamps to buy food, sell the food and then use that money to buy drugs, Napier said.

"People across the state support this bill," he said.

Other lawmakers expressed concern about a shortage of drug treatment centers in Kentucky. They asked what would happen if people can't get into those treatment centers but want to keep their public assistance.

Napier said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services would oversee the program and be responsible for such details.

Burch said there were too many unanswered questions about the proposal.

He said the Roman Catholic Church had a saying: "Hate the sin, love the sinner."

"I love you, Lonnie," Burch told Napier on Thursday. "But I hate this bill."

Because of the Republican walkout, the committee could not take a vote on HB 289, which would create a statewide smoking ban. The bill would ban smoking in all public places and in places of employment.

Burch said after Thursday's meeting that HB 289 probably would be heard early next week.

He criticized the Republicans for boycotting the meeting. "I guess if they don't get their way, they just take their ball and go home," Burch said.

Rep. Bob DeWeese, a Republican and vice chairman of the committee, said he and other Republicans knew that HB 26 would have been defeated in committee, but they thought it deserved a vote.

"It's the principle," De Weese said. "We were basically upset because Lonnie's bill was not going to get a vote. It had 64 co-sponsors."

The other five Republican representatives who didn't attend the meeting were Addia Wuchner of Burlington, Julie Adams of Louisville, Tim Moore of Elizabethtown, Ben Waide of Madisonville and Brent Housman of Paducah.

Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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