Oklahoma House Passes Welfare Drug Testing Bill

Oklahoma House Passes Welfare Drug Testing Bill

Bill also requires anyone seeking state or local office to certify they have passed a drug test within 15 days of filing papers

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK — The Oklahoma House of Representatives Monday passed a bill requiring poor people seeking public assistance to be subjected to random, suspicionless drug testing. The bill sailed through the House on an 82-6 vote.

Before the final vote, but after being needled by Democrats, who chided their Republican colleagues for singling out the poor for drug testing, the House passed an amendment to the bill that also requires anyone seeking state or local office to certify they have passed a drug test within 15 days of filing papers. The amendment passed 68-12 on a bipartisan vote, despite the objections of bill sponsor Rep. Guy Liebman (R-Oklahoma City).

Under the measure, House Bill 2388, persons receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program would have to submit to a drug test at their own expense within three months. Failure to comply would result in disqualification from the program until that person submits to a drug test. A positive test result would mean that person would be ineligible for the program for one year, although he or she could reapply after six months if he or she has successful completed drug treatment.

“The message of this bill is simple,” said Liebman. “Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity. Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment.”

A legislative staff fiscal analysis of the bill found that it could save the state $582,000, more than half of which would come from not having to pay for drug treatment for people thrown off TANF. The remaining savings to the state would come from not having to pay benefits to the estimated 84 people who would be thrown off the rolls (out of more than 13,000 families).

The fiscal analysis also noted that the bill would cost TANF recipients more than $800,000 in drug testing fees, in effect saving the state money by placing a greater burden on its poorest members. The analysts also warned that “any legal expenses could offset the savings” to the state.

But Liebman didn’t care about that. “Even if it didn’t save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle,” he said. “Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger.”

Although Liebman was cavalier about it, the state runs the risk of running up a substantial legal bill defending the bill if it becomes law. The random, suspicionless testing of public benefits recipients was found unconstitutional by a divided federal appeals court panel in 2003 after Michigan passed a similar law in 1999. The panel held that it violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unwarranted searches and seizures. The state of Michigan did not appeal that decision. The state of Florida passed a similar law this year; it has been blocked by a federal district judge’s temporary injunction. That judge has hinted broadly that she will soon make that a permanent injunction.

As for requiring candidates for public office to submit to drug tests, the US Supreme Court ruled a similar Georgia law unconstitutional in 1997 in Chandler v. Miller.

The federal courts have consistently held that random, suspicionless drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment and have carved out only specific, limited exceptions, including people in safety-sensitive positions, such as truck drivers and airline pilots, among police engaged in drug law enforcement, and for high school students (but only those engaged in sports or extracurricular activities).

All of the federal precedents didn’t seem to mean much to Republican bill supporters. “If the courts want to overturn it, have at it,” said Rep. Doug Cox (R-Grove).

The bill now heads for the state Senate.