POLITICS
03/01/2013 03:30 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

Drug Testing Bill For Welfare Applicants And Public Officials Advances In Kansas

The Kansas state Senate on Thursday passed a bill to require applicants for welfare and unemployment benefits to undergo drug tests, as well as certain public officials.

The measure now heads to the Republican-controlled state House, where it is likely to pass in some form.

State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) is excited about the bill -- at least the part that calls for testing people who seek government benefits.

"We need to put an end to the cycle of poverty with people on government assistance," Claeys told The Huffington Post. "Drug use is a big contributing factor in the continuing cycle of poverty."

The Kansas state legislature is charging ahead on a host of conservative policy prescriptions, including proposals to eliminate income taxes, roll back collective bargaining rights for public employees and restrict abortions.

Making poor people take drug tests has been a policy goal for Republicans across the country, despite a general lack of empirical evidence that drug abuse is a big problem among people receiving government benefits. But few states have actually followed through with testing schemes because there is little to suggest they save money, but a lot to suggest they can trigger a successful constitutional challenge.

Citing the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches by the government -- the Supreme Court has long held that forcing people to pee in cups counts as searching them -- federal judges this week thwarted Florida's efforts to test welfare applicants. The law had already been put on hold after just a few months in 2011 by a lower court in response to a lawsuit by civil liberties advocates.

A key difference between the Kansas proposal and the Florida law, however, is that while the latter required testing of all welfare applicants regardless of suspicion, the former calls for testing only welfare applicants reasonably suspected of drug use.

Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri, said a reasonable suspicion standard would generally make civil liberties advocates less likely to challenge a drug testing law, though he'd reserve judgment until he sees how it actually works.

"It depends how they implement it," Bonney said.

The Kansas bill also calls for making government officials take drug tests. Under the proposal, if drug use is suspected, the state government can order testing for "persons taking office as governor, lieutenant governor or, attorney general or members of the Kansas Senate or House of Representatives and for applicants for safety sensitive positions in state government."

Amending Republican drug testing bills to include tests for lawmakers has been a common Democratic counterattack for the past few years. State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D-Wichita) added the provision to the Kansas bill this week, saying, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

A House committee is likely to schedule a hearing on the Senate bill in the next few weeks. Claeys said he's not a fan of drug tests for government officials and he hoped he and his House colleagues could remove the provision. He said testing electeds could run afoul of a section in the state constitution that prohibits detaining a legislator during the legislative session "except for treason, felony or breach of the peace."

"They can't detain me en route to or from the capitol," Claeys said. "Not even to pee in a cup."

He also noted that having an executive branch employee drug test legislators could lead to questions about the separation of powers. But he said if the bill becomes law with the testing for public officials provision still intact, and a judge decrees that it adheres to the state constitution, he'll comply.

"If I'm ordered, I'll do it," he said.

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