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Keller alters drug testing for state-aid bill

Posted: March 12, 2013 - 11:02pm

JUNEAU — Adults applying for cash public assistance would have to declare their sobriety under a bill heard by an Alaska House committee Tuesday.

It’s a reworked version of HB16, introduced by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla. The measure initially would have allowed the state to conduct “random and suspicion-based” drug and alcohol testing of adults who receive cash public assistance.

The random-testing requirement was seen by some as an unconstitutional search and seizure.

HB16 was set for a hearing before the House Health and Social Services Committee last month, but Keller pulled it to do additional work on it.

The new version unveiled Tuesday would scrap the random testing element and instead require recipients to sign a sworn statement saying they don’t abuse alcohol or use illegally obtained drugs. They also must declare they won’t engage in such actions while they receive cash assistance.

An individual could be denied benefits if he or she makes a false statement. An investigation of applicants or recipients could include drug or alcohol abuse testing.

Proponents say the state should not give money to people who might use it to feed a substance addiction.

But Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said the testing scheme still constitutes an illegal search, despite removing the random testing element from the bill.

“There may not be a constitutional requirement for a (welfare) program to exist. However, once the state establishes a program, it must do so in a way that meets constitutional requirements,” he said.

“The way it’s written, everybody still gets tested,” Mittman told The Associated Press.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, who called himself a product of public assistance, worried the bill skirts around the substance abuse issue and could punish children who benefit from cash assistance but have parents with substance abuse problems.

“Alcohol dependence and alcoholism is a disease,” the Barrow Democrat said. “Unfortunately, this bill won’t stop the disease.”

The bill would also require participants in the Alaska temporary assistance program — which provides cash assistance to families — to swear in their statement that members of the family do not and will not use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol.

“I’m not sure how we can have the person who is applying for temporary assistance give a sworn statement that nobody in the family is going to abuse alcohol or use illegally obtained drugs,” said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. “They are swearing in a sworn statement that none of the kids are going to do some of the things that kids do.”

The state Department of Health and Social Services would be allowed to test applicants and recipients if they have a reasonable suspicion of drug and alcohol abuse. Nageak said the bill doesn’t define what constitutes “reasonable” suspicion, and Seaton added that the bill doesn’t say when alcohol use crosses the line into abuse.

Monitoring and investigating behavior might prove difficult, as most of Alaska’s welfare programs don’t require in-person meetings, said Ron Kreher, director of public assistance for the department.

“We rarely get to see a client face-to-face, especially those that are in rural Alaska,” he told the committee.

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