Alcohol testing bill needs work, sponsor says in hearing

Lisa Demer

A controversial bill that provides for drug and alcohol testing of Alaska's public assistance recipients had its first hearing Thursday, and the sponsor said he knew it needed work.

State Rep. Wes Keller, a Republican from Wasilla who co-chairs the House Health and Social Services Committee, said his bill was intended to help people when alcohol or drug addiction disrupts their lives.

Critics say such testing would be an invasion of privacy and unconstitutional.

"It's the intent of this legislation to put a new tool in the hands of (the Department of) Health and Social Services to allow them to do a better job in strengthening families and protecting children from child abuse and neglect and that's assuming that many times substance abuse is at the core," Keller said at Thursday's hearing. Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, is also a sponsor, and Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, signed on as co-sponsor.

Under House Bill 259, the department would have to create a new program providing "random and suspicion-based testing" of welfare recipients for alcohol or illegal drugs including marijuana, cocaine, opiates and amphetamines. A person who failed two tests and refused to get treatment would lose direct cash assistance, though the person or family could still get help if the payment was managed by a third party.

The bill sets specific criteria for how much of which drug would constitute a failed test. But it's vague on alcohol, saying only that it sought to address "use of alcohol that impairs a recipient's ability to work or to seek work."

When other legislators asked about how that would be measured, Keller said he needed to do additional work on that.

Mike Hoffman, executive vice president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, told legislators his organization opposes the bill.

"We believe House Bill 259 is unconstitutional and it's an unreasonable attempt to infringe on the privacy rights of our welfare recipients by the state of Alaska," Hoffman said. "There is no crucial and urgent public safety concern that would justify this kind of intrusion."

Beyond that, he said, the association administers public assistance for its 56 member villages and doing the required drug and alcohol testing would be a costly burden.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska also raised concerns in a four-page letter to Keller and committee co-chair Rep. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat.

"We know of no case, at the federal or state level, that has endorsed a program of compulsory drug testing for a category of citizens such as 'those receiving cash assistance,' " Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU executive director, said in the letter.

Keller said that since people voluntarily applied for public assistance, he didn't see a problem.

If the bill passes the social services committee, its next stop is the House Judiciary Committee, Herron noted.

The state Division of Public Assistance has been helping Keller with technical aspects of his bill but hasn't yet taken a position on it, said Ellie Fitzjarrald, division director.

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