Posted 1/27/2013 04:45 pm
Updated 1 year ago
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas state lawmakers are weighing a bill that would require prospective and current recipients of unemployment benefits to pass a drug test and a proposal to require the same of the state's elected officials and public employees.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who filed the bill, said that the state -- which administers unemployment benefits -- has a compelling interest in ensuring that people receiving unemployment benefits are not illegally using drugs.
The measure would require new applicants for unemployment benefits to submit to a drug screen; current unemployment recipients would be randomly tested for benefits on a frequency determined by the state's Department of Workforce Services.
(Take Our Poll: Do you favor drug testing for people on unemployment? Click to weigh in.)
"The purpose is to deter people from getting on drugs while they are seeking unemployment benefits, so they can get a job," he said. "If one of the conditions of receiving unemployment is that you're working on securing employment, you can't very well claim you're able to do that if you can't pass the drug-testing requirement."
Hutchinson said he filed the bill after hearing from businesses in his district that told him that some job candidates who were on unemployment benefits were not able to pass their initial drug tests.
"I don't think it's a widespread problem," he said. "I think most people on unemployment are people who are down on their luck and are working very hard to find a new job."
But Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who has filed her own amendment to the legislation, says that the bill unconstitutionally targets an entire group of people.
"It's an illegal search and seizure," she said. "Why should we suspect that these people who are unemployed and applying for benefits are using drugs if we don't have any reason to?"
Flowers also said that many recipients of unemployment benefits may have already been subject to a drug-testing policy while they were working for a private employer, and many will likely face drug-testing as they start at another job.
"If they passed those drug tests when they are on the job, why would we be so suspicious of them when they leave employment?" she asked. "These are people who are unemployed because the employer either downsized or went out of business. But they have accumulated sufficient hours of work if they are receiving unemployment benefits."
Under Flowers' amendment to the bill, elected officials and all public employees would be subject to random drug testing. The bill covers officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.
"If we're going to do this, let's be fair," she said. "It doesn't make sense to me that you would be suspicious of those people who are unemployed and not be suspicious of those people who are actually working and in public jobs."
Flowers said that while her bill is intended as a political statement, but it's also a serious proposal that she thinks would be good policy.
"I'm just trying to equalize what's often required in private workplaces with what's required of public employees," she said. "I think as a legislator, all of us should be concerned about the public dollar, the taxpayers' money. It goes to the efficiency of government."
Hutchinson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that while he supports the concept of drug-testing for elected officials and public employees he said Sen. Flowers' amendment was a "red herring" that would complicate passage of the bill.
He said the Judiciary Committee would vote on the measure within the next few weeks.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)