WASHINGTON -- Welfare drug tests won't take their place alongside abortion restrictions and voter identification requirements in North Carolina's recent slew of conservative laws.
On Thursday, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) vetoed a bill that would have allowed drug testing for welfare applicants.
"This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse," McCrory said in a statement. "Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction. It makes no sense to repeat those mistakes in North Carolina."
A similar welfare drug testing law enacted by Florida in 2011 wound up costing the state tens of thousands of dollars over a period of months before federal judges found it unconstitutional. The short-lived testing revealed a lower rate of drug use among welfare applicants than among the general population.
While McCrory vetoed the bill, he also announced an executive order to enforce the bill's requirement that the state's Department of Health and Human Services check welfare and food stamp applicants' criminal histories and possibly share that information with law enforcement in an effort to catch fugitives.
“While I support the efforts to ensure that fugitive felons are not on public assistance rolls, and to share information about them with law enforcement, other parts of this bill are unfair, fiscally irresponsible and have potential operational problems," McCrory said.
Under the vetoed bill, North Carolinians seeking benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known locally as Work First, would have paid for their own tests if the health department had "reasonable suspicion" they were using drugs.
"If you have money to buy drugs, you have money to buy food, you have money to support your family," state Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican bill sponsor, said in April. "You don't deserve public assistance."
The reasonable suspicion standard made the proposal less vulnerable to a constitutional challenge than Florida's blanket testing scheme was, but civil liberties groups nevertheless called on McCrory to veto the bill, saying it "sprang from the baseless narrative that public assistance programs are rife with criminals and drug abusers."
Bill Rowe, a lawyer with the North Carolina Justice Center, a liberal advocacy group that cosigned the local American Civil Liberties Union's veto demand, said state lawmakers rushed the drug testing debate and missed the point.
"There were statements about helping people, but it would go unnoticed that there was already in place a policy and a program that was designed to help people," Rowe said.
Indeed, the bill repealed existing state law requiring welfare applicants addicted to drugs or alcohol "to participate satisfactorily in an individualized plan of treatment in an appropriate treatment program" that included random drug tests.
McCrory indicated skepticism for the testing measure almost as soon as the Legislature sent it to his desk in July. He said that while the "concept in general is sound," he had concerns about implementation and also the likelihood of a successful legal challenge.
Constitutional concerns haven't stymied drug testing efforts in other states recently. Kansas Republicans won testing for welfare in April and Texas Republicans approved testing for unemployment benefits in June. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives sought to add drug tests for food stamps this year as well.