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Jun 2, 2010 9:50 PM by Chris Welty

Senate Committee Backs Welfare Drug Testing

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A bill requiring drug testing of welfare
recipients is nearing final legislative passage after narrowly
winning approval in a Senate committee Wednesday.
Members of a Senate judiciary committee voted 4-3 to advance
Rep. John LaBruzzo's bill to the full Senate for debate, after a
political tussle in committee to kill the measure. It already has
been approved by the House.
The proposal would require 20 percent of people who receive cash
assistance from the state to be randomly tested for drug use. Those
who test positive would have to enter a treatment program or lose
their benefits.
"My goal is the money that taxpayers are paying ... goes to
support families and not to support someone's drug habit," said
LaBruzzo, R-Metairie. He said his bill would help drug addicts get
treatment and keep families intact.
Critics of the bill argued that random testing constitutes an
illegal search and would violate welfare recipients' constitutional
rights.
Amy Colby, executive counsel for the Department of Social
Services, said the department already screens recipients of cash
assistance for drug use each year using oral interviews and a
questionnaire. Anyone identified as a potential drug user is then
tested for drug use and put in a treatment program, she said.
LaBruzzo said DSS' current screening process is not sufficient
because addicts often lie about their problem.
Testing a percentage of all recipients would be a "unreasonable
and suspicionless search," Colby said. In 2003, the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Sixth District ruled that a similar Michigan law
was unconstitutional.
The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates that the drug tests
would cost just under $22,000 a year, though some legislators said
they worry it would cost much more.
The proposal generated tearful testimony from former addicts who
said they wished a testing requirement had existed when they were
in the throes of their addictions. Dawn Parker begged legislators
to sign off on LaBruzzo's bill, saying she lost custody of her two
children after she turned to prostitution to support her crack
habit.
"I lost my kids because I used to take my money and buy crack
cocaine every chance I got," she said.
Parker said if she had been tested for drug use before receiving
welfare payments, she could have received help in a treatment
program. Instead, she said she spent more than two years in prison.
The measure would only apply to parents who get cash benefits
from the state, which range from $122 to $200 a month. Those
receiving other forms of welfare, including housing assistance and
food stamps, would not be subject to testing.
An earlier version of the bill placed priority on testing
pregnant women, but that requirement was stripped out.
LaBruzzo, who in 2008 proposed voluntary sterilization of
welfare recipients, sponsored a similar drug testing bill last year
that failed to win approval in the House.
Opponents of the bill in the committee worked furiously
Wednesday to keep it from reaching the Senate floor. After an
initial motion to reject the bill failed by one vote, one of the
supporters of the measure, Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas,
stepped out of the room. The bill's opponents seized upon
Guillory's absence but still lacked the votes to kill the bill. The
bill passed after Guillory's return.
The committee's votes cleaved along gender lines, with the
committee's three women - Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, Sen.
Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles, and Sen. Yvonne Dorsey, D-Baton
Rouge, voting against the measure.
Legislatures in at least five other states have considered
similar bills this year.

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