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NC Senate OKs drug testing requirement for welfare

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Applicants for North Carolina's cash and worker-training welfare program would have to undergo a drug test to qualify for benefits and pay for it upfront under a bill approved Monday night by the Republican-led state Senate following debate on whether such a get-tough strategy goes too far. 

Senators agreed in a largely party-line 35-15 vote to pass legislation that would demand testing for applicants and recipients for the state's Work First program. 

Those who pass the screening would be reimbursed in future assistance payments; those who fail could reapply in a year after completing a treatment program at their own expense and passing a test. Both parents in a two-parent household would have to take a test. 

The current law already requires local social service agencies to screen for substance abusers using experts or doctors in addiction fields, but no drug testing is required. An applicant or recipient determined to be addicted to alcohol or drugs must complete a substance abuse treatment program and submit to drug testing, however, to continue qualifying for benefits. 

Bill supporters said the state should go a step further and deny benefits to substance abusers so they can't receive monetary assistance from the state that they may use to buy drugs instead of helping their families. Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said the state should not help pay for what he called an "ugly, dirty habit." 

"Our drug problem that we have in this state is not something that we can just stick our head in the sand and hope it goes away," said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell. "We are funding our problem. We are handing cash payments to individuals who could not pass a drug test."

But Democratic speakers called the measure mean-spirited. They said it would discourage people from seeking assistance for their families because they can't pay for a drug test, which senators said during debate could cost from less than $50 to $150 per person. 

Work First, which is paid through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, provides cash assistance and job training. The state had a Work First caseload of more than 21,000 as of last month. 

Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, asserted that the bill is also unconstitutional because applicants are being forced to submit bodily fluids for testing even when there's no suspicion that the person is a drug user. 

Such a bill "only inflames erroneous stereotypes about poor parents and drug abuse," Bryant said, adding that ultimately senators are punishing children from getting needed services. "If we really care about treating drug addiction among the poor, there are constitutional ways to do that," she said. 

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, offered an amendment that in part would have required all members of the General Assembly, the governor, and other members of the Council of State to submit to a drug test before getting sworn in and annually thereafter. But Senate Republicans used a parliamentary rule to avoid a vote on the measure. 

Chief bill sponsor Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, said he'd be willing to submit to a drug test so as long as he wouldn't have to pay for it if he passed the test. But he said Robinson should file a separate bill. 

Two Democrats - Sens. Gene McLaurin of Richmond County and Michael Walters of Robeson County - joined all Republicans in supporting the measure, which now goes to the House for consideration.

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