- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — People who test positive for drugs would lose some of their welfare benefits under legislation being considered in the General Assembly.

Applicants for the job-training program required to receive welfare would be questioned about substance abuse, and those already in the program would be assessed periodically. If the screening indicates the person is using drugs, the Department of Social Services could require a drug test.

Those who fail or refuse to take the drug test would be ineligible to receive federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, money for a year under one bill. The Senate version instead would allow the person to continue receiving benefits as long as he completed a drug treatment program.

A similar effort to drug test all welfare recipients was ruled unconstitutional in Michigan five years ago, and an effort to do so in Kentucky seems to have hit a dead end this year over similar concerns.

But those behind Virginia’s bills say they will pass the constitutionality test because they simply require a series of questions about drug use — not drug tests — of all applicants and recipients.

The sponsors, both from Southwest Virginia where prescription painkiller abuse is prevalent, say the measure is needed to make sure tax dollars aren’t diverted from diapers to drugs. After all, they say, many working Virginians must submit to drug tests.

“I’m certainly not, and most people are not opposed to using my tax dollar to help people when they’re down on their luck, but I don’t want them to use it for people who are abusing it by buying drugs and not helping their children the way it was designed,” said Delegate Charles W. Carrico, Grayson Republican and a former state trooper.

Opponents say the legislation could end up hurting the children of those already struggling to get by.

“If there’s someone with a substance abuse issue, let’s get them help, let’s not just kick them out and say, ‘Good luck taking care of your kids with less money and your substance abuse problem,’ ” said Ty Jones, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Miss Jones also objects to the provision in Carrico’s bill that shuts off benefits for one year for those who test positive for drugs.

Sen. Phillip P. Puckett’s bill would allow benefits to continue as long as the person continues treatment. If they drop out, their TANF funding stops.

“I don’t want a situation where people just jump in and out of the program at their convenience,” said Mr. Puckett, Russell Democrat.

Mr. Carrico and Mr. Puckett originally asked for drug screenings for those who receive any type of public assistance, but the hefty price tag — estimated at more than $11 million a year — and questions over conflicts with federal guidelines narrowed their focus to only applicants or participants in Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare, or VIEW.

The Department of Social Services would have had to screen approximately 394,000 people already receiving public assistance and an estimated 221,500 who apply each year. The scaled-down version encompasses only about 13,000 already in the VIEW program and about 9,000 applicants each year.

Cost estimates for the slimmed down versions haven’t been made public.

Mr. Carrico’s bill passed out of a House committee 20-2 last week and now goes to House Appropriations, which determines whether proposals get funded.

•••

Two abortion-related bills won preliminary approval yesterday in the House of Delegates.

One would guarantee women the opportunity to view an ultrasound image of the unborn baby before the abortion. The other would ensure that information about fetal pain is given to women seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, tried to amend the bills to replace the word “unborn baby” with “preborn child” or “unborn child.” The amendments were soundly rejected.

A final House vote on the bills is set for today. If they pass, the bills likely will run into more trouble in the Senate, which historically is less receptive to abortion-related bills.

•••

Legislation to replace the annual state vehicle inspection with inspections every other year was postponed until next year.

The Senate Transportation Committee yesterday suspended the bill sponsored by Sen. Mamie Locke, Hampton Democrat, at her request.

Gov. Tim Kaine had suggested replacing the annual $16 inspection with one every two years at a cost of $20 as a way to save Virginians money and free the state police up for more patrolling of the highways. Some officers are tasked with examining the facilities that perform the inspections.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the governor was disappointed but still intends to cut down on the number of annual checks police must do on inspecting stations.

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