When the General Assembly during its recently concluded session turned out one misguided bill after another – to hold down the racial minority vote, weaken environmental rules, cut taxes for the well-off, squeeze spending on schools – Gov. Pat McCrory went along for the ride. He signed most of the bills pushed through by his fellow Republicans, declining to register any objections with his veto stamp.
But give the first-year governor credit for making at least one good veto call. That was when he turned down a bill requiring passage of a drug test if an applicant for, or recipient of, state welfare benefits is suspected of using drugs. Detailing several problems with House Bill 392, McCrory rightly called it a “step backward” in the state’s efforts to combat drug abuse.
Now legislative leaders plan to convene a special session Sept. 3 that could feature an attempted veto override. But the governor’s qualms should be taken seriously.
The bill imposes the drug testing requirement when there’s a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use – a standard that could be unevenly and unfairly enforced. If someone did fail such a test, he or she would be ineligible for benefits under the Work First program for a year. The person could reapply in the meantime but would themselves have to pay for a substance abuse program and retesting. That’s hardly realistic.
In his Aug. 15 veto message, McCrory said the drug testing rules “were not thoroughly analyzed” before the bill was enacted. He went on to list these specific concerns:
— “The changes that would be required are not funded in this bill or the 2013-15 budget.
— “The bill is a step backward for DHHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] in its efforts to assist people in combating substance abuse. The Department currently screens all adult applicants for substance abuse issues and, as appropriate, facilitates a treatment plan with which the applicant must comply prior to receiving benefits.”
—“I am concerned that the means for establishing reasonable suspicion, as outlined in the bill, are not sufficient to mandate a drug test under the Fourth Amendment.
— “The punitive mandates of this bill go too far in restricting future access to benefits that could have a negative impact on children and families.
— “Similar efforts in other states have proven costly for taxpayers and did little to help fight drug addiction.
— “There are potential obstacles to consistent application across 100 counties.”
H.B. 392 cleared the House and Senate amid the pre-adjournment crush in late July. There was more than enough support in each chamber to meet the three-fifths majorities needed to override a veto. The bill was backed by some Democrats as well as the Republicans who control each chamber.
The thought that somewhere, somehow, a person receiving public benefits because of poverty might be using that money to feed a drug habit is understandably troubling, and of course the state should try to prevent it. But McCrory did a good job of explaining why H.B. 392 is unnecessary and counterproductive, besides raising issues of fairness.
The N.C. Council of Churches was among those urging the governor to veto the bill when it landed on his desk. Now, the Council hopes that legislators, taking McCrory’s points to heart, will let his veto stand and agree to his call for further study. That would be not only a more compassionate outcome, but also promote effective policies for dealing with both addiction and poverty.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate