By Phillip Smith
A bill that would require public benefits recipients to take a drug test upon suspicion they are using drugs passed the state Senate Wednesday. It had already passed the House, and now returns there for a concurrence vote after it was amended in the Senate.
The bill, House Bill 392, requires participants in the state's Work First program, which offers cash benefits, training, and support services to families to submit to drug testing if authorities have a reasonable suspicion they are on drugs. The bill also requires stringent background checks to ensure that recipients are not probation or parole violators or have outstanding felony warrants.
The measure is part of a package of conservative bills being rammed through the Republican-dominated legislature. This session, Republicans have passed abortion restrictions tied to an anti-sharia law bill, repealed the Racial Justice Act, and disqualified the state from receiving federal funds for benefits for the long-term unemployed, in addition to hammering away at public benefits recipients with the welfare drug testing bill.
Those actions have generated weeks of Moral Mondays protests by social justice and civil rights activists. More than 700 people have been arrested to far in Moral Mondays civil disobedience at the state capitol.
Republican senators amended the bill to make it more palatable by inserting language clarifying that drug test results would remain confidential and that people who tested positive would be referred to treatment resources. They also deleted language that required county employees to tell potential recipients that they wouldn't be drug tested if they didn't apply for Work First.
"We've worked really, really hard to make this bill fair," said bill sponsor Sen. Dean Arp (R). "I hope my colleagues feel we tried to address their concerns."
He didn't convince Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Chapel Hill), the only senator who actually took to the floor to speak against the bill.
"There is no evidence that people who are getting (Work First) checks are more likely... to be drug users," she said. "This is just a stigma, and one more kicking people when they are down."
And it is a burden on county social service departments and the taxpayers, Kinnaird said. "It's an added burden time-wise, paperwork-wise," she said. "And it's an unfunded mandate."