Are legislators looking for a way to simply remove drug addicts from public assistance payments or are they looking to be a genuine source of help to those who are suffering from a debilitating mental hardship? That’s the debate that came up Monday in the Idaho House as representatives discussed legislation proposed by Rep. Richard Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, which could ultimately lead to anyone who tests positive for illicit drugs while on public assistance payments being removed from those funds.
Wills, in his floor speech, told lawmakers that his plan to study removing drugs addicts is “about 30-35 years too late” and that the state needs to look ahead at ways to save money by withholding payments to those who choose to abuse the system. Wills’ plan would not actually create a drug testing program, but would direct the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to study the feasibility of creating a program that would random drug test those receiving public assistance payments. The department would have until just before the 2011 legislative session to study the proposition, then it would be required to report to lawmakers.
One area of major concern for Wills is program costs. Though he believes the state could save “a huge amount of money” by removing addicts from public assistance payments, he would like the department to study how to create a program which is ultimately “self-supporting.” Wills added that one possible solution to pay for the program is to institute the testing and use some of the money saved by not having drugs addicts on public assistance.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, authorizes, but does not require, states to use drug testing as a screening method for welfare recipients. The group feels, however, that screening citizens with drug tests is too costly, ineffective, and likely unconstitutional. On its website, the ACLU says there is evidence that a questionnaire could be more effective in catching drug abusers than random drug testing.
In the floor hearing Monday, critics of the study expressed concerns about Wills’ real intent behind the plan. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said the study could be useful if questions are asked in the correct light. Rusche expressed concern that those doing the study might taint the results based on the wishes of the Legislature. Rusche, himself a physician, said that he would fully support the study if it is meant to serve in a manner in which the state can find ways to improve aid to those suffering from addiction, but that he could not vote for a plan that would simply aid the state in removing addicts from payments.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, joined Rusche in opposition to Wills’ plan. Jaquet said that the state already has timelines imposed on welfare and the study would be a waste of time. Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, echoed Jaquet’s sentiment, saying that she is concerned that the study would burden the department, which is already facing a heavy workload.
Before the vote on the measure, Wills reassured lawmakers that the resolution was simply a study, but warned lawmakers of the inevitability of his plan.
“We have to go down this road sometime,” said Wills.
Lawmakers voted 55-11 to approve the measure and send it to the Senate.