By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — Six House Republicans boycotted a committee meeting Thursday because the chairman refused to take a vote on a measure that would require random drug testing of those who receive welfare and other public benefits.
But House Health and Welfare Chairman Tom Burch said Thursday that House Bill 26 would have been defeated if the committee had taken a vote.
“I didn’t want to embarrass him,” Burch said of Rep. Lonnie Napier, the primary sponsor of HB 26.
Napier, one of the longest serving members of the House, announced earlier this year that he was not seeking re-election.
Despite the Republican boycott, Napier, R-Lancaster, presented his bill to the committee. The measure has 64 co-sponsors, or more than half of the 100-member House. Napier filed a similar bill last year but Burch’s committee never voted on it.
More than 30 states have considered similar bills in recent years. Last year, a federal judge in Florida declared a similar law unconstitutional, saying that it constituted unreasonable search and seizure.
But Napier said said he has made several changes to his proposal that address constitutional concerns and other problems.
Napier said the drug testing would be random and would only occur after there was a suspicion of possible drug abuse. A person who failed a drug test would have 60 days to clear drugs from their system before taking a second drug test.
If a person failed a second drug test, then the person would have 14 days to enroll in drug treatment. If a person did not seek help, their public assistance would be terminated.
Benefits for children in that adult’s home would not be terminated, Napier said.
Several Democrats questioned the constitutionality of the provision, saying it would unfairly target the poor.
Rep. Jim Glenn, D-Owensboro, questioned if Napier was going to ask other people who receive government payments to take drug tests as well.
“Does that include the presidents of our universities, who also receive public assistance? Does that include the superintendents of our public schools, K-12, who also receive public assistance? … Does it include General Motors, who the government just bailed out? Do we test all of these people? They’re all receiving public assistance. I don’t want to just test the poor.”
Napier said he would not be against an amendment to include state legislators in the measure.
Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, also questioned if there was evidence that the poor abuse drugs more than other groups.
Napier said tests in Florida showed somewhere between 6 and 7 percent of those on public assistance abused drugs. Owens said the number was between 1 and 2 percent.
Owens said Napier had no hard facts to show that the poor disproportionately use drugs.
Napier said his proposal has had widespread support among Kentuckians who are tired of people using tax dollars to support recreational drug habits.
Many people use food stamps to buy food, sell the food and then use that money to buy drugs, Napier said.
“People across the state support this bill,” he said.
Other lawmakers expressed concern about a lack of drug treatment facilities in Kentucky. If people can’t get into those treatment centers but want to keep their public assistance, what would happen, they asked?
Napier said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services would oversee the program and would be responsible for those types of details.
Burch concluded that there are too many unanswered questions about the proposal.
He said the Catholic church had a saying, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
“I love you Lonnie,” Burch told Napier on Thursday. “But I hate this bill.”
Because of the Republican walk-out, the committee could not take a vote on House Bill 289, which would create a statewide smoking ban. The bill would ban smoking in all public places and in places of employment.
Burch said after Thursday’s meeting that the bill would likely be heard sometime early next week.
Burch criticized the Republicans for walking out of Thursday’s meeting.
“I guess if they don’t get their way, they just take their ball and go home,” he said.
Rep. Bob DeWeese, a Republican and vice chair of committee, said he and other Republicans knew that HB 26 would have been defeated in committee but they felt the bill deserved a vote.
“It’s the principle,” DeWeese said. “We were basically upset because Lonnie’s bill was not going to get a vote. It had 64 co-sponsors.”
Other Republicans who didn’t attend the meeting include Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington; Rep. Julie Adams, R-Louisville; Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown; Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville; Rep. Brent Housman, R-Paducah.