Between The Lines: Committee urged to kill rotten bill

Maybe it's my imagination. But there seems to be a pattern developing here.

Do South Dakota legislators routinely introduce all the really rotten bills to various committees in Pierre first, and save the good ones for later?

Like I said, it may just be me. But word began spreading from Pierre early last week that Rep. Mark Kirkeby, a Rapid City Republican, plans on bringing back a controversial bill from last year's legislative session.

Kirkeby hopes to pass a real stinker of a piece of legislation that would allow officials to deny state assistance to people who test positive for illegal drugs.

If passed, state officials would have the discretion to demand that a welfare recipient take a drug test. A positive test would make that person ineligible for aid for a year, while refusing to take the test would mean a six-month ban.

"Why in God's green pastures would we ever allow $1 of tax-supported assistance to go to an individual that is using illegal drugs?" Kirkeby said.

Why indeed. Well, for starters, his measure is likely illegal. Or unconstitutional. Or both.

And while most level-headed people like you and I can agree that it's generally a good idea for EVERYONE not to use illegal drugs, whether or not they be welfare recipients, what doesn't come floating to the surface so easily is the likelihood that there's something more nefarious going on here.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that's what really behind this resurrected attempt to drug-test benefits applicants is a desire to stigmatize the needy.

Think about it a minute, focusing strongly on these two words: "state" and "assistance."

One of the routine functions of the state (in general terms, our government) is to serve the citizenry through a variety of programs. And, all sorts of people benefit. Businessmen get state contracts, farmers receive crop subsidies and retired state workers receive pensions.

All without peeing into a cup first.

The pro-drug-testing movement that sadly isn't limited solely to South Dakota, however, is focusing exclusively on welfare recipients – an easy target.

I can understand how drug testing the needy, at first blush, may receive a loud "Hurrah" from we common folk that like to call South Dakota home. I mean, it certainly sounds like the "right thing to do." And, it also appeals to one of our baser instincts – to define the poor as not just one big group of people, but as "deserving" and "undeserving."

Once that rush of sudden do-goodism wears off a bit, however, and one starts using one's brain instead of baser human emotions to analyze this legislation, it's easy to see why whatever committee may first consider this bill – again, should kill it – again.

This proposal will not do what Kirkeby claims. And more importantly: it is likely to be unconstitutional.

Adam Cohen, in a piece published last fall in Time magazine, notes that drug testing proponents like to argue that there are large numbers of drug users going on welfare to get money to support their habits. The claim feeds into long-standing stereotypes about the kind of people who go on welfare, but it does not appear to have much basis in fact.

Several studies, including a 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have found that there is no significant difference in the rate of illegal-drug use by welfare applicants and other people. Another study found that 70 percent of illegal-drug users between the age of 18 and 49 are employed full time.

Drug-testing laws are often touted as a way of saving tax dollars, but the facts are once again not quite as presented. Idaho recently commissioned a study of the likely financial impact of drug testing its welfare applicants. The study found that the costs were likely to exceed any money saved.

The Rapid City Journal, in its story citing Kirkeby's plans, pointed out the other side of the story. Opponents say such a bill would be inhumane and possibly illegal. Last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon said federal regulations say drug use can't make someone ineligible for food stamps or Medicaid.

She also said that welfare recipients aren't significantly more likely to use illegal drugs than others. In testimony last year, Malsam-Rysdon said about 7 percent of the general population and 9 percent of welfare recipients use drugs.

Other critics said such a bill could penalize children for the behavior of their parents.

If you aren't swayed by opponents of the legislation, then consider this: Under a new Florida law, people applying for welfare have to take a drug test at their own expense. If they pass, they are eligible for benefits and the state reimburses them for the test. If they fail, they are denied welfare for a year, until they take another test.

A Florida television station, WFTV, reported that of the first 40 applicants tested, only two came up positive, and one of those was appealing. Florida stands to save less than $240 a month if it denies benefits to the two applicants, but it had to pay $1,140 to the applicants who tested negative. The state will also have to spend considerably more to defend the policy in court.

Last year, Kirkeby's bill was defeated 8-5 in committee. We urge state lawmakers to give it the same treatment this year.

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