Both houses of the General Assembly continue to advance legislation that would require local social services agencies to screen certain welfare recipients for possible drug use and subject some to drug tests.
The Senate Finance Committee and the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee advanced separate bills this morning, despite objections from some Democrats who argued that the measures are not constitutional.
This is the second year in a row that Republican lawmakers have pushed for such legislation. Democrats have decried the proposals as attempts to exploit the poor for political purposes.
On a party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill (Senate Bill 721) that would require local social services departments to screen each participant in the Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare (VIEW) program and determine whether there is “probable cause” to believe the person is using drugs. Those suspected of using drugs could be required to take drug tests and lose benefits for 12 months if they refuse and test positive. Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, is the bill’s sponsor.
The requirement would cost the state more than $587,000 in its first year and entail additional costs for local governments, according to fiscal impact statements attached to Carrico’s bill. The Commission on Local Governments received impact statements from 20 localities, which reported widely varying cost estimates. Roanoke reported that the drug screening requirement would increase costs by less than $5,000. Virginia Beach reported that its costs would increase by more than $93,000.
The House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee endorsed a similar bill (HB 1769) by a vote of 14-8 and sent the bill to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, sponsored the bill, which incorporates measures sponsored by other Republican delegates.
Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico County, asked Bell is he was persuaded by a federal court ruling that a similar program in Florida was “unconstitutional and impractical.”
“No. Thank you,” Bell replied.
Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County, asked if the Division of Legislative Services had assessed the constitutionality of the bill. The committee’s chairman, Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline County, said the agency no longer issues such opinions.
“That is a court call, not staff call,” Orrock said.
– Michael Sluss