Senate adopts proposal to make drug-testing program permanent, make War Memorial part of state Parks and Tourism

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 377 views 

State senators on Monday adopted legislation to make permanent a pilot program for screening welfare applicants as well as endorsing the governor’s plan to move the War Memorial Stadium Commission into the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

Both measures were approved overwhelmingly by the Arkansas Senate as part of a busy day of lawmaking at the State Capitol as the 91st General Assembly enters the sixth week of the biennial session.

First on the Senate calendar was SB123 to extend Act 1205 of 2015, which authorizes a two-year pilot project that requires government assistance applicants to be screened for possible substance abuse prior to program enrollment. Based on the substance abuse screening results, Arkansas work assistance recipients can be required to take additional steps, including initial and confirmation drug tests, and if required, explore and potentially participate in substance abuse treatment plans.

Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, who was the sponsor of the original legislation in 2015, said although only two persons had tested positive for drug use out of 3,040 persons that were screened, the program should be continued because it prepares those receiving government assistance for work.

“Getting these folks ready for the workforce is the sole reason for doing this,” Johnson said, adding that the state only spent $30,000 to administer the program.

“There is a return beyond dollars and cents … when they try to get folks ready for work. That is what this bill is trying to do,” he said.

When the Arkansas Drug Screening and Testing Program was passed two years ago, the legislation originally called for a minimum of 10% of the program’s population statewide as well as all applicants and recipients in the counties bordering Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and any other states bordering Arkansas could face the testing.

However, Gov. Asa Hutchinson opted for a statewide rollout of the program through the state Department of Workforce Services and the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, questioned Johnson for several minutes on the success of the pilot program, given that only two persons have tested positive since the program began operating less than a year ago.

“Two out of 3,000 doesn’t appear to be far-reaching,” Ingram said.

Still, the Senate easily passed Johnson’s bill by a vote of 26-7. The bill, approved mostly along party lines, now goes to other side of the Capitol where it will be taken up by the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Senate Bill 255 also ran into protests from Ingram and other Democrats, who were powerless to halt either bill. Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, successfully pitched the governor’s proposal to fold oversight of the War Memorial Stadium into the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

Under Hutchinson’s plan, the War Memorial Stadium Commission (WMSC) and its staff of six employees would cease to be a standalone entity and would move under the umbrella of APDT, led by director Kane Webb. In addition, through his discretionary funds, Hutchinson will fund a study by a nationally recognized stadium consultant to make recommendations on future needs of the stadium.