The Idaho Legislature will ask the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) to study the potential cost and legal hurdles to start random drug testing for people receiving public assistance. On a 19-16 vote, the Idaho Senate Tuesday narrowly approved a resolution asking for the study. The House approved the resolution March 8.
Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, said offering public assistance to people using illegal drugs is a problem that he hears about at town hall meetings in his district. He also said the study would be limited to determine the feasibility of random testing. “This is only a start,” Pearce said. “This is only the beginning.”
Opposition to the program stemmed from the potential cost of the program and the legality of drug testing people receiving assistance from welfare and other programs. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said it could open up a pandora’s box of added costs. “I am concerned that a light study wouldn’t add any clarity to what the future cost of implementing a program (would be),” she said. She said the cost of the test and the potential cost of sending more people to state prisons could add a burden to the state budget.
The House resolution says the study will have no cost, which drew objection from several senators. “The blatant dishonesty that they’re presenting upsets me,” said Sen. Charles Coiner, R-Twin Falls.
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said she’s discussed drug testing with DHW officials. “They tell me it cannot be done because of federal regulations,” Broadsword said. “It’s a great idea, but it’s one that we really can’t do right now with the federal regulations in place and our desperate need for federal dollars to support people on those programs.”
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the resolution wouldn’t change policy, and that the opposition is an overreaction. “Let’s just ask the question and slowly proceed forward,” he said. “If this is something that they can’t legally do, then we’re done and we can’t go further.” Once lawmakers get the results of the study, they could then consider changing state laws.
“This study will be minimal,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “This is a very sensitive and touchy issue. However, we owe it to our constituents to make sure that every dollar spent by health and welfare is spent appropriately.” He said he’s heard stories of people using public assistance payments to buy illegal drugs.
DHW will need to complete the study and report back its findings to lawmakers next year. The text of the resolution is available here.