A Georgia lawmaker's ironic drunk driving arrest is unlikely to slow local Republican efforts to drug test the poor and unemployed.
State Rep. Kip Smith (R-Columbus), who co-sponsored one of several bills to drug test welfare applicants, was arrested and charged with a DUI on Jan. 12. But even though the arrest story went viral, people on both sides of Georgia's drug testing legislation say that it's improbable Smith's bust will change the course of drug screening efforts in the Georgia General Assembly.
State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) acknowledged the irony of Smith's arrest, but said it would not matter "at all" to the several bills he has authored for random drug testing of people who apply for welfare and unemployment insurance. The bills are on their way through the committee process.
"I'm hoping there's going to be a groundswell of support for this kind of legislation," Stephens said. He added that out of 800 job applicants at a business in his district, 397 failed a drug test. He declined to name the business, but offered an explanation for the huge number of failed tests.
"If a junkie is trying to think of some scenario that they can get the government to buy their methamphetamine and heroin," Stephens said, "can you think of a better way to fulfill your obligation than by applying for a job on the one hand and intentionally failing a drug test on the other so you can continue to get your unemployment check?"
Larry Pellegrini, executive director of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, a coalition of progressive groups in the state, said that even though everyone who testifies against drug testing in committee hearings will mention Smith's DUI, suspicion of the unemployed is more potent in the statehouse than one unfortunate drunk driving arrest.
"I don't think it's going to matter when they appear to be so serious about getting this through," said Pellegrini, who is strongly opposed to the drug testing. "It's a waste of money and the only lasting benefit appears to be for the testing companies...It's shown to be constitutionally suspect by the legal response in other states. It's shown to be a waste of money by the pilot programs."
In Florida last year, a federal judge stopped the state from drug testing welfare applicants, ruling the policy unconstitutional and pointing out that there is no evidence it saves any money. Stephens said his legislation would overcome constitutional and money-wasting problems by establishing random testing instead of blanket testing.
Even though the DUI prompted John Pezold to announce that he would challenge Smith in a July primary, Pezold has not put forward a position on drug testing.
"I really don't have all the facts on it," he said. Pezold, owner of a McDonald's restaurant in Bradley Park, S.C., said he would have announced his candidacy in a few weeks but decided to jump in sooner because of the arrest.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) said he hopes the drug test bills will also elevate his measure to drug test the General Assembly. He does not know whether Smith's bust will boost demand for accountability in the legislature, but several Republicans -- including Stephens -- have already said they support his bill.
"Rep. Smith has brought himself some trouble, but perhaps this experience will bring him a new perspective. I wish him well," Holcomb said. "As for my bill, I filed it to make the point that government shouldn't target only the working poor for drug tests and make them pay for those tests. That's wrong, unfair, and lousy policy. That's why I filed my bill, and if it passes, it even requires legislators to use personal funds -- not campaign funds or government funds, to pay for the tests. But, my real point isn't to expand drug testing -- it's to stop policies that unfairly pick on the poor."
Candidates for state office in Georgia used to have to pass a drug test, at least until the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional in 1997. Holcomb said his proposal is tailored to pass constitutional muster in light of the Supreme Court decision.
Smith did not respond to requests for comment. He told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that he took "full responsibility" for his mistakes. "I understand there are consequences, and there's no excuse."