Georgia ReportNews

Capitol Impact

It has been said that insanity consists of “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.†If that is the case, you might have to conclude that we’ve got some very deluded people inhabiting our Capitol. Georgia’s legislators do the same thing every year: they pass laws that they are warned in advance are unconstitutional; those laws are indeed challenged in court, and the court rejects the statutes for violating either the state or the federal constitution.

It happened a couple of years ago when the General Assembly created a commission to override the decisions made by locally elected school boards and approve state charter schools. The Georgia Supreme Court tossed that one out for violating the state constitution.

It happened last year when lawmakers passed an immigration control bill that was an attempt to boot undocumented immigrants out of Georgia. Federal Judge Thomas Thrash blocked two of the law’s major provisions on the grounds that the U.S. Constitution says immigration and naturalization laws are the responsibility of the federal government.

We will probably see the same thing happen with a bill that Gov. Nathan Deal signed last week requiring welfare applicants to pass a drug-screening test before they can be eligible for benefits. The outcome of this one isn’t hard to predict. Florida passed virtually an identical law last year, and a federal judge rejected it for violating the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

It’s frustrating to see these things happen, because Deal and House Speaker David Ralston, the two most powerful men at the capitol, are intelligent lawyers who have at least a nodding familiarity with the Constitution. You might expect them to exercise some mature oversight and prevent the Legislature from indulging in this silliness.

It’s bad enough to lose in court, but the drug-testing law has also proved to be ineffective and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

When Florida passed its version of the drug-testing law last year, the bill’s supporters (like those who voted for Georgia’s new law) said the measure would save the state money. It didn’t. During the four months before Florida’s law was overturned, the state required more than 4,000 applicants for welfare to take the drug tests. Only 2 percent of those who took the test failed it. Because the Florida law required the state to reimburse those who passed the drug test, the state ended up paying about $118,000 to the successful applicants.

That amount was higher than what would have been paid in benefits to the 2 percent who failed the test. The net cost to Florida’s government was about $46,000 from a drug screening law that was supposed to have saved the state money. And we’re not even counting the fees that Florida paid the attorneys it retained to defend the law in federal court—where it was rejected for being unconstitutional.

No rational person thinks it is a good idea to allow tax dollars to be spent on the purchase of illegal drugs. How do you keep welfare recipients from doing this while at the same time recognizing that they have the same right as the rest of us not to be subjected to unconstitutional searches?

Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) proposed a simple solution: instead of requiring everyone who applies for benefits to take a drug test, authorize the Department of Human Services to administer the test when it “has reason to believe†that a welfare recipient is using drugs.  Carter’s proposal would have fixed the constitutional flaw. A majority of the Legislature, however, thought it was more important to score political points than to pass a law that was actually constitutional. The Carter amendment was voted down, and the matter is headed to the federal courts.

Some people never learn.