The county Board of Commissioners recently opposed support for a bill mandating drug testing for those applying for state benefits, but the commissioners remain on the hunt for an alternative screening program to support.
At this month’s regular meeting the commissioners voted 3-2 against a resolution that would have lent the county’s support to the bill that passed the state Senate at the end of April.
That bill, which will soon be considered by the House, mandates drug testing for everyone applying for Work First benefits, such as food stamps, small cash grants, or job training.
The resolution was introduced by Commissioner John Cooley and initially seconded by Bob Davis before Davis learned that Scotland County Department of Social Services representatives have reservations about the bill. Davis withdrew his second and the resolution failed by a 3-2 vote.
Despite the vote, the commissioners still appear to be interested in recommending a drug testing program, as they have assigned County Manager Kevin Patterson with the task of finding a more efficient alternative to the mandatory testing for all proposed in the Senate bill.
“We asked Robby (Hall, Director of DSS for the county) and (Patterson) to go and see if there are some other ways to accomplish the same thing.” said Chairman Guy McCook.
The commissioners received feedback from Hall at last week’s budget work session, learning that the program outlined in the senate bill would come with a hefty price tag for the county.
“We were looking at at least a $40,000 ticket for the county,” McCook said. “As much as we want to hold people accountable, we can’t afford that.”
According to Patterson, there are likely more effective and efficient alternative to the program of universal testing outlined in the senate bill.
“From a practical standpoint other states where similar legislation has been enacted, testing all applicants, the costs have exceeded the savings,” Patterson said.
Patterson and Hall will seek out the advice of the DSS Directors Association, which has been involved in an extensive review of legislation tying drug screenings to benefits.
“We will then take those alternatives to the commissioners, likely next month,” Patterson said.
Given the alternatives, the commissioners will likely vote on a resolution voicing their support for one of the other options.
McCook said that the idea of random testing was especially appealing at first glance.
“With random testing you wouldn’t have the burden of testing everyone and, just like in the private sector, you wouldn’t be able to plan ahead for the test,” McCook said.
In agreement with McCook, Commissioner Carol McCall said that “if (applicants) know that they’re going to be drug tested and that they won’t pass, they just won’t show up.”
Whatever the option they choose to support, Patterson said that the commissioners are looking to accomplish a simple goal.
“Basically what they’re looking at is the fact that people who are habitual drug users do not make good employees, which means that they’re not actively seeking employment (which is a requirement of the benefits). They just want to exclude people who should already be ineligible,” Patterson said.
“We’re not trying to argue with the state on the principle of the matter, we just want to find a less costly means of achieving it,” Patterson added.
Similar legislation in other states has faced legal challenges.
“The overreaching search (of urine) gets challenged as well as the fact that the legislation makes the client pay for the drug testing fee up front, then they get reimbursed if they pass the test.
“The Federal government prohibits the use of fees or costs to discourage application for benefits,” Patterson explained. “If we pay the cost of establishing this program and then the federal courts put in an injunction, we could waste dollars.”
Patterson said that Hall and other DSS officials are concerned about the cumbersome nature of a screening program like the one described in the senate bill.
“If you go to a suspicion-based or random-based process, you’ll get people who choose not participate, which may get the state a lot of the same benefit of testing everyone,” Patterson said.
One of only two senate Democrats to vote in favor of the drug testing mandate, Sen. Gene McLaurin said that his decision was not reached lightly.
“I think anybody receiving public benefits should have to take a drug test,” said McLaurin, who represents Scotland County.
“I wrestled with this issue of drug testing … (and I wanted) to send a message to people that if you’re going to expect to see government benefits then you are going to have to do the right thing for your family and yourself.”