Arkansas Senate OKs Unemployment Drug Testing, Benefit Cut

LITTLE ROCK — The 85,000 Arkansas residents receiving unemployment benefits could see their payments drop and would have to submit to random drug testing under a pair of bills the Republican-controlled state Senate approved Monday, which Democrats criticized as unfair to those seeking work.

The Senate voted 19-12 Monday to cut the maximum weekly benefits the state pays in unemployment benefits, moments after senators approved by a 25-5 vote a bill requiring those receiving benefits to submit to random drug testing. Both measures head to the Republican-controlled House.

Supporters of the measures say they're intended to save money in the state's unemployment program, especially after the state has had to borrow money from the federal government in recent years for its benefits.

Sen. Bart Hester's proposal would cut the maximum weekly benefits the state pays out from $451 to $325. Hester, R-Cave City, said his proposal would put Arkansas' benefits more in line with surrounding states.

"The intent here is to find a happy medium," Hester said.

Several Democrats, however, lined up to criticize the proposal and said it would hurt the unemployed and their families as the state is still recovering from the economic downturn.

"It's horrible," said Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola. "Everybody in this chamber ought to be ashamed if you vote for this bill."

The drug-testing proposal would require unemployment applicants and recipients to consent to random screenings in order to receive benefits. The measure leaves it up to the state Department of Workforce Services to decide how to set up the testing.

The proposal would also prohibit the drug test results from being released or used as evidence for criminal prosecution.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, the sponsor of the bill, said the testing would cost the state less than $30,000 a year to administer and that he believed it would help the state determine if recipients are actively seeking employment.

"If you can't pass a drug test, then you typically can't get employed, and I would argue you're not actively looking for employment," Hutchinson, R-Benton, told lawmakers.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said the governor was concerned about whether Hutchinson's proposal would run afoul of federal unemployment laws and whether the drug testing would show any savings to offset the costs of administering such a program. Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor was reviewing Hester's proposal to cut unemployment benefits.

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