RICHMOND — A Republican-controlled House committee Tuesday passed bills that would subject recipients of welfare benefits in Virginia to drug testing and repeal a mandate that girls receive vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
The two measures, priorities of the state's conservative caucus for the 2012 legislative session, cleared the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee on 14-8 votes over the objections of Democrats.
"What are we trying to do here?" asked Lionell Spruill Sr., Chesapeake Democrat, of the measure that would screen welfare recipients for illegal drug use. "Now we're picking on people who are poor."
Mr. Spruill asked whether drug tests should also be given to corporations, who receive a significant largesse from the state in the form of tax credits — or General Assembly members themselves.
"What about us?" he asked. "We make a big $17,600 a year — why don't you test us?"
Proponents of the measure, emboldened by a new effective majority in the state Senate, insist that it is not intended to pick on a particular group but to ensure that the state is properly spending taxpayer dollars.
"They're not being singled out," said Delegate Christopher T. Head, who introduced one of several bills on the subject. "As stewards of public money, we have a responsibility to make sure that that money's being spent right."
At least 36 states introduced proposals last year related to drug testing of welfare and food-stamp recipients, and three states enacted legislation, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Arizona enacted a temporary rule for fiscal 2011-12 requiring its Department of Economic Security to screen applicants it has reason to believe were using illegal drugs. Missouri requires a urine test for applicants and recipients of TANF benefits who the state has "reasonable cause to believe" the applicants are using illegal drugs, based on screening.
Florida, meanwhile, passed a law last year requiring all applicants to be tested. Delegate Joseph D. Morrissey, Henrico Democrat, pointed out during debate that a federal judge recently blocked the Florida law.
"We're taking a group of people that come in, many of whom have no [intentions] of drug use whatsoever, and we're asking the government to draw their blood," he said.
The situation in Florida, however, did not sway Mr. Head.
"This is Virginia — I don't care about Florida," he said.
Under the legislation, local departments of social services would screen participants in Virginia's employment program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to determine whether "probable cause" exists to believe they are taking illegal drugs. In that case, participants would take a formal drug test. If they test positive or refuse without good cause, they would be ineligible to receive TANF benefits unless they enter a drug treatment program.
Those deemed ineligible cannot receive benefits for 12 months, though they would be given one shot to comply with screening and be reinstated during that 12-month period. Family members of a person who fails or refuses to participate in a drug test would still receive the benefits.
The Department of Planning and Budget has estimated that the bill would cost the state more than $1.5 million in the next fiscal year and about $1.2 million annually thereafter due to costs for staff, substance abuse screenings, assessments and drug testing. TANF benefits would decrease by about $250,000 in the first year and about $500,000 thereafter.
Other bills that attach strings to such benefits have not fared well. A Senate committee on Monday killed a proposal from Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. that would require people applying for unemployment benefits who were fired for misconduct related to drug use to submit to drug testing. Someone who fails or refuses to participate without a good reason would be barred from receiving benefits for six months.
Another proposal from Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., Franklin Republican, that would require 24 hours per week of volunteer service for unemployment-benefit recipients has been carried over multiple times in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.
Meanwhile, the committee also advanced another conservative priority Tuesday morning — legislation that would repeal a mandate that girls receive a vaccination to protect against HPV before they enroll in the sixth grade. Virginia in 2007 became the first state in the country to impose such a mandate, though parents can opt their children out for essentially any reason.
"Parents and doctors are best designed to make those decisions," said the bill's sponsor, Delegate Kathy J. Byron, Bedford Republican.
A federal advisory committee in 2006 recommended routine vaccination to help prevent HPV, which can cause cervical cancer. At least 20 states have enacted legislation since that time to require the vaccine, or fund or educate the public about it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It became an issue late last year during the presidential campaign, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, was criticized for enacting a vaccine mandate by executive order in 2007, only to have it overridden by the state legislature. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, then took fire from fellow conservatives after she suggested that the vaccine could cause mental retardation.
A similar measure cleared the Virginia House of Delegates last year but languished in a Senate committee, then stacked with Democrats, that Republicans now control. Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, has also introduced a measure to repeal the vaccine mandate and, failing that, another that would make the state liable for any injury that results from administering the vaccine.
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