RALEIGH — State Rep. Garland Pierce was elated Thursday when he heard that Gov. Pat McCrory had vetoed a bill that would have made drug testing a requirement for some welfare applicants.
“He did the right thing,” said Pierce, a Democrat who was the only member of Robeson County’s five-member state legislative delegation to vote against the bill when it was in the General Assembly. Sen. Michael Walters and Reps. Charles Graham, Ken Waddell and Ken Goodman all voted in favor of the bill.
The Republican governor said some of the drug-testing bill demands were fiscally irresponsible, potentially intrusive and punitive in restricting access to benefits that could hurt families.
“This administration believes there are better ways to fight addiction and prevent criminal drug abuse,” McCrory wrote in his formal veto message to legislators. “However, this is not the best way forward and I must veto this bill.”
The welfare bill would have directed state Department of Human Health and Services to administer a drug test to any applicant to or recipient of the Work First welfare program who the agency “reasonably suspects is engaged in the illegal use of controlled substances.” A person who tested positive for drugs would have to pay for any substance abuse program or drug retest should they want to reapply for benefits.
The current law already requires local social service agencies to screen for substance abusers and potentially help with treatment, but no drug testing is required. Supporters said people with drug problems shouldn’t be getting money from the state they could use to buy drugs instead of food and clothin.
McCrory’s office said drug testing in welfare programs in Utah, Arizona and elsewhere “proved to be expensive and ineffective at catching drug abusers.”
Pierce, the chairman of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, praised McCrory for his veto of the bill.
“We (Black Caucus) have not and will never condone fugitive felons receiving assistance from the state of North Carolina and will do whatever we can, along with the governor, to assure that does not occur,” Pierce said in a statement. “In that light, however, there are aspects of this bill that we felt were unconstitutional, yet if there were to be a revision of this bill, we would like to see it thoroughly vetted in the public arena, and all parties with a vested interest brought to the table and given a full opportunity to address their concerns.”
Rep. Charles Graham was surprised by the governor’s veto.
“Those bills had bi-partisan support,” he said. “It sounds to me like there are internal problems within the (Republican) party, the leadership and the governor.”
Rep. Ken Waddell said that he had no problem supporting drug testing for those who are receiving welfare.
“People in all jobs today go in knowing that they may be required to take a drug test,” Waddell said. “I had to take random drug tests when I was a school teacher and bus driver.”
Waddell said that drug tests for those applying for welfare benefits could improve “public perception” of welfare programs.
“There’s a lot of need in Robeson and surrounding counties, and no one is against those in need receiving benefits,” Waddell said. “But it seems out of character and unfair for those who are felons or using drugs to be eligible for such assistance.”
In addition to the bill requiring drug testing, the governor on Thursday vetoed a bill that would place less restrictive demands on employers checking on workers who may be in the country illegally. These two bills are the first two bills that McCrory has vetoed.
The immigration bill would have exempted employers from using the federal E-Verify system for temporary workers of less than nine months in a calendar year, compared with no more than three months in a 12-month period that is currently law. The bill, designed in part to help farmers who need seasonal labor, would make it easier to hire immigrants who are in the country illegally in more industries than just agriculture, McCrory said.
“Every job an illegal immigrant takes is one less job available for a legal North Carolina citizen,” McCrory said in a statement. “We must do everything we can to help protect jobs for North Carolinians first and foremost.”
The governor is now required to call the General Assembly back to Raleigh by early September so lawmakers can attempt to override his vetoes. Both measures passed the House and Senate in the legislative session’s final days last month by wide veto-proof margins. A veto override requires yes votes from three-fifths of the members present in each chamber.
McCrory did issue an separate executive order dated Wednesday that attempts to address a portion of the drug-testing bill that would have subjected welfare and food stamp applicants to expanded background criminal history checks. The order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that county social services offices conduct criminal checks for first-time or renewing applicants.
McCrory, who took office in January, said the executive order reflects his support for “efforts to ensure that fugitive felons are not on public assistance rolls.”
The bills would have to first be considered by the House, where Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, expressed displeasure with the vetoes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.