Drug testing public assistance applicants

Need for drug tests questioned

Sending message trumps lack of need for bill, sponsor says

Other legislation: Coal tax-break debate goes to Senate floor

Drug testing people who apply for public assistance may not save taxpayers any money and likely is unnecessary because Wyoming’s POWER program already imposes strict job training and other performance requirements on participants. The Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee considered House Bill 82 – Public assistance- drug testing Wednesday morning. The bill will require testing of applicants for illegal drug use to qualify for the public assistance program. Sponsors of the bill learned, apparently for the first time, that when Wyoming reformed its welfare program in the 1990s, it eliminated incentives to stay on assistance rather than take a job, according to Sen. Charles Scott. The benefit payments are very low and a family must be dirt poor to qualify. Yet one sponsor of the proposed law said that lack of need for the testing no longer matters. News coverage of the proposed bill has been so broad that killing the bill now will send the wrong message to the state, Sen. Ray Petersen, SD19, R-Cowley, told the committee. “Perhaps it is sufficient,” the senator said after hearing that case workers who oversee people enrolled in the Personal Opportunities with Employment Responsibilities (POWER) program can order a drug test and treatment if they believe an enrollee has a substance abuse problem, including an alcohol problem. (HB 82 does not address alcohol abuse.) But choosing to drop the proposal now will send a message “that we’re not going to impose these rules,” Petersen said. Describing his constituents as “ultra-conservative,” he said he signed on the bill as a co-sponsor because the people he represents wanted him to do so. “The reason is the frustration of the taxpayer,” he said. “They want solutions … it’s not so much money, it’s the incentive to make the right choices and getting off the dole.” He conceded, however, that HB82 “may be overkill.” Committee Chairman Scott, SD30, R-Casper, told sponsors that because of welfare reform in the 1990s, “I’m telling my constituents that we’ve driven the people off who have the drug problems.” Scott noted that virtually all the people who now qualify for the program face a significant life crisis, such as a divorce or have left an abusive home. The committee decided to continue working the bill and will resume discussing it at a Friday meeting. Sen. John Schiffer said he would offer an amendment to require drug tests of all applicants and existing program participants “on a random basis.” Several people speaking at the meeting said random tests are far more likely to discourage illegal drug use because people can prepare for a scheduled test. Concerns that the tests would be required of grandparents taking care of children handling the assistance for qualified grandchildren were brushed off by Schiffer. “If Granny’s number is up, her number is up,” he said. The Wyoming Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the bill is unconstitutional because it singles out a select group of people for the testing without probable cause. Rep. Marty Martin, SD12, D-Superior, said that the cost of the program could be higher than anticipated. He noted that a random testing program monitoring for a full panel of drugs would be far more expensive than the typical $35 per-test cost cited by sponsor Rep. David Miller, HD55, R-Riverton. Using Miller’s figure, Department of Family Services officials estimated the cost of simply testing the average of 68 monthly applicants would cost the state about $27,000. The bill specifically protects benefits for qualified children even if their parent or parents fail a drug test. The Equality State Policy Center noted that if a parent is disqualified, a designee assigned by them or the Department of Family Services would accept benefits for the disqualified parent’s child. But those payments subsequently are likely to be handed over to the parent who failed a test but has custody of the child. And under the bill, there would be no help for a parent to obtain treatment for abusing illegal drugs. (Read the Associated Press report on the Wednesday hearing here.)

Coal tax-break faces new questions

The Senate approved House Bill 38 – Coal valuation – industry factors in Committee of the Whole. (This bill formerly was titled Coal severance tax industry factor.) The Senate adopted a standing committee amendment that raised the factor to 79.5% for coal extracted in the Powder River Basin and 81.5% for coal mined elsewhere in the state. (Think Sweetwater and Lincoln counties.) The half-percent increase will ensure that the change is close to being “revenue-neutral” in the first few years it is used. The change will reduce the coal industry’s tax obligation in future years – a tax break for the mining companies. Though the bill passed, several concerns were raised. Sen. Scott questioned whether it meets constitutional requirements for a uniform system of taxation. The bill will set separate factors in statute for determining the direct cost ratio used to determine the value of the coal. Those factors are based on the location of a mine rather than employing a standard formula. Scott said an independent legal opinion from the Attorney General may be needed. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association has taken no stance on the bill because its members are sharply divided over its ultimate effect, the association lobbyist told the Senate Revenue Committee on Tuesday. The Casper Star-Tribune reported on the issue in Thursday’s editions. Wyofile also is tracking the bill.   (Editor’s note: updated Thursday, March 1 with news links on HB82 and HB38 and to correct a misspelling.)

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