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Sen. Tom Cambell, R-Grafton, listens as Kim Jacobson, the director of social services in Trail County, testifies in January in opposition to SB2279 he co-sponsored to require drug testing before residents can qualify for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits. Campbell told the Senate Human Services Committee he didn't have a problem depriving a mother and child of TANF if it meant removing the child from a home environment of drug users. 

A Grafton lawmaker aims to require drug testing before residents can qualify for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits.

Meanwhile, social services and human services officials countered the proposal, pointing out that such a process would be expensive and not solve problems with drug abuse.

“We have a serious drug problem in North Dakota,” Republican Sen. Tom Campbell said Monday. “It’s time we send a message to all that we will no longer put up with drug users who receive TANF benefits.”

Under Senate Bill 2279, the North Dakota Department of Human Services would be tasked with developing a procedure for testing people suspected of illegal drug activity.

A referral process would be set up for those who test positive. An applicant who refuses to take a drug test, refuses a drug assessment or doesn’t participate in a treatment plan would be ineligible for benefits for one year.

In SB2279 if a parent is deemed ineligible, it doesn’t impact a dependent child’s benefits and it would allow for an appropriate adult to be designated to receive benefits on behalf of the child, according to Campbell.

SB2279 would require DHS to develop rules for the program, including the use of federal testing procedures, standards for what is deemed a positive test and retention of records.

Campbell said those in the workforce are subject to drug testing, so why not subject TANF applicants to the same standards.

“I went through the test that took about 10 minutes with immediate results,” said Campbell, adding that his test came back negative.

Campbell spoke of his years working in prison ministry among other areas of outreach and being told a high number of people are abusing the system.

“It’s a form of tough love,” Campbell said.

Senate Human Services Committee Chairwoman Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said additional data would be helpful.

“We need to have supporting data,” Lee said on how many people may be on drugs and getting benefits.

Similar legislation has failed in past sessions, most recently in 2013.

Traill County Social Services Director Kim Jacobson said there were numerous concerns about SB2279, including having the burden of proof placed on the counties.

“Eligible workers are not social workers nor do they have experience, education, training in working with individuals impacted by substance abuse nor to identify signs of substance abuse,” Jacobson said.

She said training and certification is required for administering the tests and would be expensive, costs she assumed would fall on the individual counties.

“This bill may create new issues, including liabilities, which would likely result in not being the best use of public dollars,” Jacobson said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 15 states have laws requiring drug testing and screening for public assistance programs. The issue has been debated on the state level since federal welfare program reform passed Congress in 1996.

Pamela Sagness, Behavioral Health Division Director for the state Department of Human Services, said SB2279 would “further stigmatize people with addiction.”

In states that drug test people for TANF benefits, the instances of those found using drugs is very small, according to Sagness.

The House Human Services Committee heard a similar bill, House Bill 1308, Monday afternoon. The same individuals testified in that hearing making identical arguments as well.

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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