Concerns raised over how drug testing bill would affect bush Alaska

Wes Keller makes his case for the bill to the House Health and Social Services committee.

Wes Keller makes his case for the bill to the House Health and Social Services committee. (Image courtesy Gavel Alaska)

A bill that would allow the state to drug test recipients of cash assistance programs got its first hearing on Tuesday.

The measure would require a person seeking public assistance to sign a sworn statement that nobody in their household uses illegal drugs or abuses alcohol. If a recipient is suspected of lying, the state can test the person as part of their investigation. The bill also specifies that only American citizens and legal aliens can collect cash assistance. Nearly 200,000 Alaskans receive some sort of assistance from the state.

Rep. Wes Keller, an Anchorage Republican, sponsored the bill, and he says the point is to encourage personal responsibility. But members of the Health and Social Services committee had concerns about the scope of the bill and its constitutionality.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, a Democrat from Barrow who caucuses with the majority, was especially critical of how the bill might affect rural Alaska, where there are high level of alcoholism and poverty.

“This bill won’t stop the disease of alcohol,” says Nageak. “It’s just going to punish those people who, through no fault of their own, need assistance from one point or another.”

Rep. Lora Reinbold, a Republican from Eagle River, offered support for the measure.

“It’s simply identifying people who are abusing drugs and alcohol,” says Reinbold. “Is it a wise thing to be giving cash to people who are abusing alcohol and drugs? Is that wise? We need to ask ourselves as a state: is that the maximum return on our investment for our public resource dollars?”

So far, there hasn’t been an analysis of whether the bill would cost the state money or increase savings. The bill does not specify whether the state or the beneficiaries would be responsible for paying for investigations.

Seven other states have already passed legislation that would allow for drug testing of welfare recipients. In Florida and Georgia, similar laws struck down were struck down by a federal appeals court on grounds that they violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.