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House panel OKs drug tests for unemployment beneficiaries

Sen. Steve Smith (File photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The House Appropriations Committee narrowly passed a bill Thursday that would require drug tests for anyone receiving unemployment benefits, even though some of the bill’s supporters admit that it could jeopardize the federal funding that helps pay for the benefits.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said he equates being on unemployment benefits to having a job, and that the state should start requiring a drug test for it.

SB1495 would require that the applicant pay for the drug test as well. Ongoing random tests would also be required. The bill passed by a vote of 7-6.

“You want a job? Take a drug test,” Smith said during his testimony to the committee.

Additionally, Smith said the bill would help employers, because unemployment beneficiaries are supposed to be looking for work, so the drug test would help screen out potential applicants who are on drugs.

Opponents focused on how the proposal could run afoul of federal laws dealing with unemployment eligibility and the right to privacy, which could lead to the removal of federal funding for the state’s unemployment program if implemented.

Ellen Katz, a representative from the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, said there are simple federal prohibitions against what the bill proposes.

“The federal government has said you cannot require someone to take a drug test for eligibility,” Katz said.

And the random drug, she said, test violates the 4th Amendment protections against undue search and seizure.

If the state puts itself at odds with the federal guidelines, the feds could simply remove its funding for the state’s unemployment program, Katz said.

Smith, however, said he just doesn’t think the federal government is willing to take up the fight.

“Frankly, I think it’s a bluff,” he said.

Those who disagreed with Smith’s assertion that the federal government won’t take issue with the drug test requirement highlighted how it could cause the state to have to dig into an already strained general fund to pay for the entire unemployment benefits program.

Rep. Vic Williams, R-Tucson, said he fears the bill would eventually lead to unintended costs being placed on the state or employers.

“This is just not business friendly for the state of Arizona,” Williams said before voting against the bill. “This just does not make business sense.”

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