Health & Human Services

States Consider Drug Testing Lawmakers

In connection to the ongoing debate about drug-testing welfare recipients, lawmakers in Minnesota, Alabama, Illinois and Texas are considering requiring it of state legislators too.
by | April 24, 2013

By Jennifer Brooks

Drug tests for politicians? Minnesota lawmakers don't mind if they do.

"It's good accountability. Quite frankly, if someone's going out on weekends and using meth, I don't know that I want them making policy," said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, who plans to introduce an amendment to the Senate Health and Human Services budget bill this week that would require drug tests for welfare recipients and state lawmakers alike.

"Bring on the cup!" Republican Sen. Duane Quam of Byron declared Monday night, as a similar amendment passed the House by a landslide. "I have nothing to fear!"

The idea of drug testing state lawmakers was introduced as an ironic jab at a proposal to test Minnesotans on welfare for drug use. But House Democrats and Republicans alike embraced the idea, to the chagrin of some.

"It was disappointing," said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, who had hoped to shame lawmakers for promoting stereotypes about welfare recipients. But, she said, if lawmakers really want to sign up for drug tests, "certainly we could drug-test legislators without drug-testing [welfare] recipients. We could do it voluntarily. As we know, there have been people serving in this body who have been known to have problems."

The provision the Minnesota House approved -- late in the evening, after long hours of budget debates -- states that Minnesota lawmakers "may" be required to undergo random drug screening for both drugs and alcohol at their own expense. Lawmakers who test positive for drugs or alcohol would be barred from receiving a paycheck until their test results were clean. It remains to be seen whether legislative drug tests will survive the conference committee and get signed into law.

But Minnesota's isn't the only Legislature lining up for drug tests.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that Alabama, Illinois and Texas are debating drug testing for lawmakers and welfare recipients alike. Kansas added lawmakers to the list of welfare and unemployment recipients, who are subject to random drug tests if they were suspected of drug abuse. That bill passed this month.

During debate Monday, Liebling said lawmakers should be ashamed to perpetuate the stereotype that poor Americans are more likely to abuse drugs than anyone else, including elected representatives.

"There is no evidence that people who apply for [welfare in Minnesota] use drugs at any higher rate than anybody else," she said. "Legislators should be tested. After all, we're giving public money and the public has an interest in making sure we're drug-free and alcohol-free."

Drug screenings for welfare recipients has been controversial for years. Florida, the first state to institute drug screenings, ended up spending far more money than it saved, and found positive drug test results in only 2 percent of those tested. Nienow sees the idea as an issue of personal responsibility and a way to identify people struggling with substance abuse.

The Senate is expected to take up its Health and Human Services bill later this week.

(c)2013 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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