DENVER (AP) — Welfare applicants would be subjected to drug tests before receiving benefits under a Colorado proposal that got its first approval Thursday as opponents called the idea immoral and an attack on the poor.
Republican Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told lawmakers that the intent of the bill is not to pick on any group, but to ensure government funds are going to people who need aid, not to people who are using their money to buy drugs. The bill is part of a national wave aimed at cracking down on a perceived misuse of government services in tough economic times.
"With our growing debt nationally, and the tough finances in the state, we have to be better at spending our money," Sonnenberg, of Sterling, said.
A House committee voted in favor of the bill on a party-line vote with Democrats voting against. Opponents testifying against the bill said it makes negative assumptions about low-income people who are being used as scapegoats during tough economic times. About three dozen states debated proposals last year to require drug screenings before receiving government aid. A handful passed laws, including Florida, where the regulation is being challenged.
A federal court has issued an injunction preventing implementation of its drug-testing program amid concerns that the law violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. This year, Utah is considering legislation to screen for drugs before providing government aid.
"This bill is impractical and immoral, not to mention illegal and it is also utterly unwarranted and lacking in respect for human dignity," said the Rev. Rebecca Jones, a deacon in the Episcopal Church, who spoke on behalf of Colorado Interfaith Voices for Justice.
She asked whether state employees and lawmakers should also get tested for drugs before being paid.
"If not, why not? Why is it OK to presume that one class of citizens should be tested for drugs, when we don't presume that of other classes," she said.
House Bill 1046 would require applicants of the Colorado Works Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to pay for and pass a drug test before receiving assistance. People who passed the drug test would be reimbursed for the cost. Applicants who fail the test would be ineligible for benefits for one year.
Legislative staffers said it would cost $219,520 the Department of Human Service to update its benefits system if the bill passes, and that counties would pay an estimated $1.3 million next fiscal year reimburse people who passed drug tests.
Sen. Greg Brophy, a Republican from Wray who is co-sponsoring Sonnenberg's bill, said it's an issue that resonates with taxpayers.
"Because people just don't like that notion of their taxpayer dollars, which are supposed to go to help people who are truly in need, being used to fund people's drug habits," he said.
Aurora Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields called the bill "an attack on poor people." Fort Collins Democratic Rep. John Kefalas said the state should focus on trying to help people with substance abuse problems, instead of punishing people who are trying to become self-sufficient.
"We're assuming things about people," he said. "I think it does rob folks of dignity."