Editorial: Drug testing bill could get interesting

Athens Banner-Herald

If it gets a serious hearing in the state legislative session that begins today, a bill filed by a Democratic state legislator in the Republican-dominated Georgia General Assembly could have some interesting implications for the state's open records laws.

Clearly a political response to legislative proposals filed in both the state House and state Senate that would subject applicants for public assistance to drug testing, a bill filed by Atlanta Democrat Scott Holcomb would subject legislators to drug testing.

Holcomb's bill should, then, get a serious hearing, insofar as it would show that lawmakers — who, like welfare recipients, are the recipients of taxpayers' dollars — are willing to subject themselves to the same conditions under which they'd disburse taxpayers' dollars to other citizens of this state.

And that's where things get interesting, Here's why:

Both the House and Senate bills on drug testing of welfare applicants would require the state's Department of Human Services to set up procedures to determine "(t)he identity of those persons entitled to the results of such tests and methods for ensuring that only authorized persons are given access to such results."

House Bill 677 mimics that language, except that it would require the House and Senate, by simple majority vote, to establish procedures for determining who would be entitled to the results of legislators' drug tests, and for ensuring that only authorized persons would have access to those results.

The language in the bills requiring drug testing for welfare applicants makes perfect sense, in terms of keeping information on a private citizen's abuse of illegal drugs within a small circle of people, based on the completely reasonable premise that such information need not be made publicly available in pursuit of the public policy goal of the Republican-sponsored legislation on requiring drug testing of welfare applicants.

That language becomes a bit problematic, though, in the context of House Bill 677, because the state legislature is exempt from the requirements of the state's open records laws.

Thus, lawmakers could conceivably pass House Bill 677 secure in the knowledge that, if any of them ever did fail a drug test, that failure wouldn't necessarily ever have to become public knowledge.

In order to give House Bill 677 some real teeth — which should, of course, be in the interest of legislators eager to show themselves not to be hypocritical — lawmakers would have to carve out an exception to the legislature's exemption from the open records law, so that the public could have access to their drug test results.

Of course, making that exception would raise the issue of why the legislature is exempted from the state's open records laws in the first place.

In that light, it will be interesting to see what happens with House Bill 677. While the bill is politically motivated, its practical implications could be good for Georgians.

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