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Welfare drug-testing bill headed to Gov. Brownback’s desk

Updated: 2013-11-19T18:16:42Z

BY BRENT D. WISTROM

Eagle Topeka bureau

— It’s up to Gov. Sam Brownback whether the state will require drug tests of welfare and unemployment recipients suspected of using illegal substances.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 29-9 to forward Senate Bill 149 to Brownback’s desk.

It allows the state to require drug tests whenever there is a reasonable suspicion that someone getting welfare or unemployment benefits is using drugs. That could be triggered by someone’s demeanor, missed meetings, police records or if they fail tests with a prospective employer.

Those who fail would temporarily lose their benefits and have to attend drug treatment and job training courses paid for by federal and state funds.

Brownback has declined to say in recent months whether he favors the bill.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said the bill, which he introduced, isn’t punitive.

“This is the most treatment-focused drug testing bill in the country,” he said.

But questions have arisen about the fairness of testing welfare recipients who are already struggling, which is part of what led to an addition to the bill that requires lawmakers to also get tested when reasonable suspicion arises.

Questions have also emerged about funding treatment programs.

Lawmakers changed the bill so that if federal Medicaid and welfare funds don’t cover the cost of treatment, the state would pick up the cost. But that idea was later removed.

“You can’t just have somebody go test, take away their benefits and then tell them to go to treatment and then go ‘by the way we don’t have any money for treatment,’” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who voted against the testing bill.

McGinn said more people may need treatment than the state has projected.

Under the bill, the Department for Children and Families would have to set up a testing program by the start of next year to test those who receive temporary assistance for needy families, commonly known as welfare.

DCF says it will have to hire four more full-time workers for the testing – at about $248,000 a year – along with computer upgrades and other changes to track testing that would exceed $500,000.

DCF expects to conduct 3,700 tests a year at $50 a test. It estimated 334 people would be required to do job skills training, costing about $500,000 a year.

But it expects 1,475 people would be banned, at least temporarily, from benefits, saving about $1.1 million, about half of which would be state money.

Those who fail an initial test could get a second test at a different facility. If they test clean on the second try, the state would reimburse them for the second test.

The bill also would make people convicted of their first drug-related felonies ineligible for benefits for five years. A subsequent conviction would result in a lifetime ban on welfare money.

The drug test results would be private, except for hearings conducted by DCF.

The tests wouldn’t search for alcohol, and the bill wouldn’t affect people who have verified prescriptions. Common testing procedures detect marijuana use among heavy users for weeks longer than can be detected for those who use more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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