Governor delays welfare drug testing law

By DeeAnna Haney | Sep 09, 2013

A controversial law allowing social service department workers to drug test and conduct background checks on welfare recipients became law last week when the N.C. General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto.

Gov. Pat McCrory objected to the measure, questioning whether it would be uniformly applied across the state, as well as the cost. After the General Assembly overrode his veto, he threatened to not implement it until the legislature funds the measure, something he called an unfunded mandate.

However, legislators are questioning how the governor intends to ignore the law.

Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican who represents Haywood County in the legislature, was one of the primary sponsors of the original bill.

“I think the governor originally said that this law did not have the appropriate funding, but we had money in the budget for programs once they become law. Now, after our veto override, it’s law, so there is money available to implement it and he is bound by the law to uphold the Constitution,” Davis said.

Senate Democratic Leader Martin Nesbit also criticized the governor saying he’s putting himself above the law and trying to pass the blame for a budget he signed.

Enforcement cost minimal

The original version of the bill would have placed a heavy financial burden on county taxpayers who would have had to foot the bill for background checks and drug testing of welfare recipients. However, changes made to create the current bill allowed Ira Dove, DSS director in Haywood County, to breathe a sigh of relief.

“The way this has been re-crafted as far as the cost, those are going to be substantially less due to the changes that came right before the vote when it passed last time,” Dove said.

There are two sections in the bill that will affect social services departments in each county across the state. The first involves conducting criminal background checks on applicants and recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). Those who are fleeing felons or a probation or parole violator will not be eligible for public assistance and will be referred to law enforcement for arrest.

In previous versions of the bill, counties would have had to pay for SBI background checks including fingerprinting on the FNS program at an estimated cost of about $150,000 if the rate was $38 per background check.

“Right at the last minute, the General Assembly said the counties are not required to fund the fingerprinting,” Dove said.

Legislators included the background checks to ensure compliance with federal law, which prohibits fleeing felons and probation violators from receiving public assistance benefits.

However, if a person is denied benefits because of a failed background check, it does not affect the eligibility for assistance of other members in the household.

Dove said it’s not clear yet what process DSS will be required to use to conduct the background checks. Because of that, he’s not sure if he will need to hire more employees.

“We’ll know more on the criminal background checks when we see that policy come out,” he said.


Drug screening

The second portion of the bill will require drug screening and testing for Work First Program applicants and recipients. If DSS workers have “reasonable suspicion” that a person is using illegal substances, that person will be given a drug test.

DSS already conducts limited background checks for the TANF and FNS cases, but the law requires a more extensive search.

Dependent children under 18 are exempt from those requirements.

Cases involving children only seeking benefits, which usually involves children who are being raised by grandparents, are exempt from the drug testing portion of the law.

“That provision is going to cut in half the number of people we would even look at for this,” Dove said.

Haywood DSS gets about 30 applications each month, but about 15 of those will be child-only cases, he said. In August, there were 192 Work First cases in Haywood County.

In child-only Work First programs, someone usually applies for benefits on behalf of the child, but that person is not included in the case.

“The child will not be required to work or do any work activities. This is a program that allows for some cash assistance to help the child in appropriate situations,” Dove said.

Applicants who test positive for drugs will be ineligible to receive Work First benefits for one year from the date of the test.

The type of drug testing that will be used, either hair or urine test, has yet to be determined by the NC Department of Health and Human Services. The department will also have to work on expanding the definition of  “reasonable suspicion,” Dove said.

Davis’ initial bill would have required applicants to pay for their drug testing up-front. If they passed the test, the government would reimburse them. However, that portion of the bill was changed. Now, the state will pay for the testing.

“The government will be on the hook for about a minimum of $40,000 and a maximum of $150,000 — that’s what the fiscal research department for the legislature estimated,” Davis said.

Drug testing of Work First applicants is not supposed to begin until next August.

Dove thanked the county commissioners who made sure to bring the cost issues related with the bill to the attention of legislators.

Overall, Dove seemed relieved that the original bill was not the final law.

“I was very thankful that they put the clauses in there on the child only and not having the county have to pay for the background checks. At $38 a piece on a mandatory system, that would have been a lot of money,” he said.

DSS across the state switched over to a new computer system earlier this year, which has caused delays for welfare beneficiaries as much as three months. Dove said he hopes the DHHS comes up with a way for workers to conduct the tests without causing more delays.

Dove said his concern is to have a process in place that doesn’t impose unnecessary delays and that respects the rights of the people who are applying for benefits.

“Those are concerns the state will have to set policies around with the federal government,” he said.

More than anything, Dove wants people to know that benefits are still available for those who need them.

“If people need the services they should not be discouraged from coming here for help,” he said.

Davis said the goal of the law was to make sure that deserving people received welfare benefits.

“Every kid deserves a drug free home and our goal is to ensure that. We think that North Carolinians should also not have to subsidize people that have bad habits of using illegal drugs,” he said.

Davis said he intends to attempt to expand the law next year to include unemployment benefits as well.