By Brent D. Wistrom
Calling drug addiction a "scourge in Kansas," Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law Tuesday a bill to test welfare and unemployment recipients suspected of using illegal drugs.
"This is a horrific thing that hits so many people," he said. "What this effort is about is an attempt to get ahead of it and, instead of ignoring the problem, start treating the problem."
The drug testing bill lets the Department for Children and Families require urine tests of any welfare recipient suspected of using illegal drugs. That could be triggered by a person's demeanor, missed appointments or police records.
Opponents of the bill said that may leave the decision open to people's biases. But the bill was swiftly approved by the House 106-16 and backed by the Senate on a 29-9 vote.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, called it "the most treatment-focused drug testing bill in the entire country." Any person who is tested and failed, can request a second test and be reimbursed for that test, which runs about $50, if they test clean.
Welfare recipients who fail the test will lose their benefits until they complete a drug treatment and job skills program.
That's paid for by federal welfare funds. A second failed test will result in a year-long loss of benefits. A surrogate can apply for benefits on behalf of children whose parents fail a drug test and lose benefits.
Senate Bill 149, effective July 1, also bans anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from getting welfare for five years. Those convicted a second time lose benefits for life.
The testing program for unemployment recipients is similar, although Department of Labor officials will require employers who usually drug test job applicants to submit a list of people who applied and didn't get a job because they failed a pre-employment drug screen.
The testing, already required of the governor and several other top state officials, now also extends to House and Senate members suspected of illegal drug use.
The tests will not look for alcohol use.
Officials acknowledged they have no precise number of how many people getting welfare or unemployment use drugs or how many people will require government-funded treatment and job training.
"I've not found a piece of legislation I've been around yet that is perfect," Brownback said. "But this starts to address a significant issue."
King said about 8.5 percent of those applying for welfare fail substance abuse screening.
Kansas is one of dozens of states that have been considering such drug tests. Florida required all new applicants to take such tests, as opposed to Kansas' plan that hinges on "reasonable suspicion." Data showed that program provided no direct savings to the state and only 2.6 percent of those tested failed tests, usually for marijuana use.
Marijuana, which is now legal for recreational use in two states and for medicinal use in several others, tends to be detectable in standard urine drug tests for much longer after use than drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine that cycle out of the body faster.
Kansas officials have yet to decide on the details of how the testing and treatment will be done. Testing would begin by Jan. 1. Anyone convicted of a drug-related felony after July 1 would lose welfare benefits for five years.
The state estimates it will need to hire four more employees to deal with drug testing and treatment management under the bill. The drug testing program and treatment is estimated to cost about $1 million the first year, after any savings from people losing benefits.
Brownback and King pointed to a program called Partners in Change at Neosho County Community College as a model for job skills training.
Neosho college president Brian Inbody, who attended the bill signing, said the six-week program was started by businesses who couldn't find a steady flow of skilled workers. So they started a program to assist the "chronically unemployed."
He said the first three weeks is about crisis management and attitudes toward the workplace. It then focuses on resume writing, math and English. He said 72 percent of those who completed the program kept a job for a year or got an industry certification to get a job.
"They went from unemployable and constantly churning in the system to employed and from a tax consumer to a taxpayer in just a few weeks," he said.
(c)2013 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)