Kansas Drug Testing Next On The Docket Of 'Ultraconservative' Bills

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback enters the house chambers to deliver his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, at the
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback enters the house chambers to deliver his State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Lawmakers seeking to abolish income taxes and stymie unions in Kansas think it might also be worthwhile to make the poor and unemployed pee in cups to prove they're not wasting taxpayer money on drugs.

A favorite policy of Republican legislators across the country, the latest drug-testing proposal has gathered support from leaders of Kansas's conservative-dominated statehouse. Kansas lawmakers say people who want unemployment insurance or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits would have to undergo the testing, and if they are found to have drugs in their system would be required to receive treatment or have their benefits suspended.

"It adds credibility to the system," state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Huffington Post. "People are putting their hard-earned tax dollars into the program to help folks and lift them out of poverty. It makes sense that they are drug-free or are going to rehab to become drug-free."

Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) and House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Olathe) both have signaled interest in drug-testing measures. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) rarely takes public positions on pending legislation, and a spokeswoman indicated to Kansas.com that the drug-testing bill is no exception.

State Democrats are gearing up for a fight over the policy. State Rep. John Wilson (D-Lawrence) expressed concerns with the constitutionality of the proposal, noting that states that have implemented similar laws have not seen results.

"It's an unfair assumption that anyone on welfare is untrustworthy," Wilson told HuffPost. "There is no difference between welfare recipients and the general public when it comes to drug use. To assume those on welfare will do drugs is inappropriate."

Wilson said he has heard opposition from constituents, who asked why welfare recipients were being singled out. He said one resident told him that anyone who receives a benefit from tax dollars -- including state employees and public university students -- would have to be subjected to the same drug-testing requirements to prevent a double standard.

Republicans in many states have sought to drug-test the poor and jobless in recent years, but few of those proposals have become law. In 2011, a federal court halted Florida's screening of everyone who applied for welfare, saying the blanket testing probably violated the Constitution. Only 2 percent of welfare applicants in the state tested positive for drugs, and the screening cost Florida more than it saved.

The Florida example is not always a deterrent to lawmakers in other states. Claeys told HuffPost that while it might not save Kansas any money to do the testing, the benefits would still outweigh the costs.

"I don't know why they want to do it," said Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri. "There is a certain philosophical strain among very conservative anti-government types that just don’t like the social safety net, and this is perhaps a way to mess with people who get help from the social safety net."

The Florida ACLU successfully halted welfare drug-testing in that state with a court challenge. Bonney said he would be more inclined to sue if Kansas writes a law that includes testing not based on prior suspicion. In Missouri, for example, lawmakers last year said the state could test TANF recipients only if state workers suspected drug use first.

As for testing the unemployed, Congress said last year that states could drug-test claimants seeking work in occupations that routinely require such testing, but the U.S. Labor Department has not yet issued guidance on which occupations fall under that purview.

There is little data suggesting drug abuse is a widespread problem among people receiving government benefits, but lawmakers usually say they hear about it anecdotally from members of the business community.

The drug-testing issue has been perennial in Kansas, dating back more than four years, with lawmakers introducing various bills to mandate the policy. The push has also included unsuccessful efforts to introduce the policy via amendments to other legislation.

The latest version is likely to pass in the Kansas legislature, which became more conservative after the 2012 elections wiped out most moderates from the state Senate. The opening days of the 2013 legislative session have been filled with a series of Tea Party-favored legislation, including Brownback's proposal to eliminate all income taxes and a proposal that the Kansas Chamber of Commerce said would help "get rid of" public-sector unions.

Former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris (R-Hugoton), who lost to a more conservative primary challenger in August, told HuffPost at the time that Brownback and his conservative allies, including the Wichita-based Koch brothers, want to turn Kansas into an "ultraconservative utopia."

Wilson hopes that legislators will step back and not rush through the drug-testing bill, a concern echoed by Democrats who are also worried about a variety of proposals pending in the statehouse.

"I hope that we can slow down and be rational in our thinking and not lead with emotion and one-sided reasoning with this," Wilson said. "Emotions and preconceived notions are getting in the way of being rational and evidence-based."



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