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Published February 04, 2013, 11:50 AM

North Dakota bill pushes drug tests for welfare recipients

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A proposal to require drug testing for some North Dakota welfare recipients puts an unfair burden on the needy and might be unconstitutional, state and social services officials said Monday.

By: JAMES MacPHERSON,Associated Press, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A proposal to require drug testing for some North Dakota welfare recipients puts an unfair burden on the needy and might be unconstitutional, state and social services officials said Monday.

Several Republican lawmakers are pushing the measure, which also would require applicants of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to pay for the drug testing themselves before getting assistance.

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, told the House Human Services Committee that the bill would ensure that taxpayer money is not being used to fuel addiction problems. He said it's a concern he hears often from his constituents.

"This bill provides a needed incentive for people to keep clean from drug use," Johnson said.

Under the measure, the state could deny public assistance for one year after the date of a positive drug test, and three years after the date of a second positive test. The measure would not affect assistance for children. A third party would manage the aid if a parent or guardian tested positive for illegal drugs.

Social services officials were critical of the measure, saying it unfairly targets the poor. The House committee took no action on the measure Monday.

"If we believe this type of legislation will make individuals seek treatment, stop buying drugs and become happy productive taxpaying citizens, we are fooling ourselves," said Shari Doe, Burleigh County Social Services director.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said seven states have passed legislation requiring some form of drug screening before state assistance can be received. Several other states have considered similar legislation.

States enacting such legislation have been "susceptible to constitutional challenges," said Carol Cartledge, public assistance director for the state Department of Human Services.

"Drug testing as a condition of receipt of economic assistance is generally considered a search under the Fourth Amendment," said Cartledge, who urged lawmakers to delay any action on the bill "until the current Fourth Amendment challenges are resolved."

David Boeck, a lawyer for the Protection and Advocacy Project, a state disability rights agency, said people with disabilities have higher rates of poverty than the rest of the population and rely more on government assistance programs.

The proposed legislation, he said, "would be impractical, prohibitively expensive and unduly harsh for some individuals with disabilities," Boeck said.

Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, is one of the bill's sponsors and said he received state public assistance about 20 years ago.

"It's not overly burdensome," Kempenich said of the requirement to submit to drug testing. "Most employers require drug testing pretty much across the board."

Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said most people who apply for public assistance are ashamed and embarrassed to do so.

"When these people apply for assistance they are often very distraught," said Hogan, a retired Cass County social services administrator.

Requiring someone to pay for a drug test, which can cost as much as $100, creates an impossible situation for people who have no money. And many applicants, especially in rural areas of North Dakota, might not have a way to travel to a facility that would administer the drug testing.

"Being poor is hard," Hogan said.

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