Virginia welfare drug testing bill still alive after committee vote

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Legislation to require drug testing of Virginia welfare recipients is still alive, but just barely.

The House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted 14-6 Tuesday to send Sen. Steve Martin's bill to the Appropriations Committee, which has postponed a similar House measure until 2013. The same fate likely awaits Martin's bill, which would take effect only if the legislature approved funding to pay for the testing.

The Republican-backed legislation, which Democrats have opposed, would require an initial drug screening of applicants, followed by drug testing if officials suspect illegal drug use. Anyone testing positive could lose benefits for a year.

Martin, R-Chesterfield, said the bill would ensure that welfare money is being spent to support families and children.

Opponents have argued that the bill offends the dignity of welfare recipients and incorrectly assumes they use drugs more than the general population. Martin told the committee that he makes no such assumption.

Martin fielded a series of pointed questions from Del. Joseph Morrissey, D-Henrico, during Tuesday's committee meeting. Morrissey asked about the cost of testing and about the constitutionality of the bill in light of a federal judge's ruling striking down a similar drug testing program in Florida.

Martin said his legislation would withstand court scrutiny because drug testing would be done only if the initial screening revealed probable cause. He said he did not know how much it would cost.

Morrissey asked whether the legislature should go even further and screen welfare recipients for alcohol abuse, or require similar testing for General Assembly members since they too receive state money. He was ruled out of order by the committee chairman.

Martin's bill cleared the Senate last week when Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast a tie-breaking vote.