DENVER - One criticism of the idea to make welfare recipients take drug tests is that lawmakers and other elected officials who also get state funds should submit themselves to the same standard.
In Colorado, lawmakers are moving to make that happen, adding the provision on a divisive bill Friday that would require drug tests for welfare applicants, and now also elected officials, including the governor.
The lawmaker who proposed the amendment, Democratic House Leader Mark Ferrandino, passed around small cups with pictures of lawmakers and the words "drug test," prompting chuckles from members of the Appropriations Committee that moved the bill to a vote of the full House. The cups listed the name of the committee as "Appropeeations."
"I brought us all cups so we can go get drug tested," Ferrandino jovially said, prompting a quip from a lawmaker that if Ferrandino was willing to take the cups, they'd be willing to take the test. Ferrandino opposes the bill.
Republican Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, the bill sponsor, said he was thinking of adding the amendment even before Ferrandino proposed it. He said he's heard from people about his bill who think lawmakers should also be tested because they're paid by the state.
"I have no problem with that. I'll be the first one in line," Sonnenberg said.
His bill would require applicants of the Colorado Works Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to pay for and pass a drug test before receiving assistance. People who passed the drug test would be reimbursed for the cost. Applicants who fail the test would be ineligible for benefits for one year.
Sonnenberg said the bill is needed make sure government benefits are going to people who truly need the help, not people who are using the money for drugs.
But opponents of the legislation said it plays on inaccurate stereotypes of minorities and low-income people. They also warn that the state could face legal challenges because courts in other states have struck down similar drug-testing programs, ruling that such plans amount to an unconstitutional search of people.
"It's a bad bill," said Ferrandino, adding that it would cost more to implement and that any savings from people who get their welfare benefits revoked would be minimal.
Legislative staffers said it would cost $219,520 to have the Department of Human Service update its benefits system if the bill passes, and counties would pay an estimated $1.3 million next fiscal year to reimburse people who passed drug tests.
Sonnenberg said state officials who say the drug test would cost $45 to $100 are wrong and he's heard from businesses that the tests cost much less.
Ferrandino said the bill adds barriers to people seeking help. He said he would try to amend the bill further to make it so state officials who fail a drug test would not get paid for the year.
The bill stands a good chance to pass the House, where Republican supporters have a one-vote majority. But Democrats control the Senate, where the bill is expected to fail.
Wyoming rejected a similar proposal this year.