The Des Moines Register
Monday, April 21, 1997, Page 1A.
Drug testing bill obstacles:
Short on votes - and time
Frustrated by a roadblock in the Senate, leaders threaten to extend the session
until the proposal is passed.
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
lawmakers getting restless for adjournment, the move to expand
the rights of employers to test workers for drug and alcohol use
appears to be stalled in the Senate.
Right now, it looks like a
statemate," said Janice Laue, legislative lobbyist for the
Iowa Federation of Labor and an opponent of the pending
Matt Eide, lobbyist for the Iowa
Association of Business and Industry, acknowledged the drug
testing bill favored by his organization seems to be taking on
water in the Senate. But it hasn't sunk yet, he says.
"It's no secret that several
Republican senators have indicated severe reservations about drug
testing," Eide said. "We're certainly not giving
up on moving the bill through the Senate this year.... At
this point in the session, there's a lot of horsetrading going
At the moment, the drug testing
bill looms as one of the major impediments to closing down the
session, which enters its 15th week today.
Republican leaders say they'd like
to adjourn in April, possibly as early as Friday. But until
the drug testing bill passes, says House Speaker Ronald Corbett,
R-Cedar Rapids, everybody should get comfortable because nobody's
Business lobbyists in Iowa have
tried unsuccessfully for the past decade to expand businesses'
rights to test workers for drugs and alcohol. With both
houses of the Iowa legislature under the control of
business-friendly Republicans for the first time since 1982, this
was expected to be the year they would achieve their goal.
The drug testing bill was
designated at the start of the session as a top priority for the
business association, for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and for
leaders of the GOP majority in each legislative House.
"There are certain things
Republicans stand for," Corbett said. "The House
is not going to adjourn (this week) unless we get drug
Senate Majority Leader Stewart
Iverson, R-Dows, said he's not despairing yet about getting the
bill passed in the Senate.
"I feel confident we'll get
something worked out," he said. "Everything that
goes through the legislature gets compromised on, and I don't
think this issue is any different."
But Sen. Steve King, R-Kiron, who's
been designated as the manager of the bill if and when it comes
up for debate, said there are limits to how watered dowm the bill
can get. "I don't see us revisiting this next
year. I want to get it right this year."
On Feb. 27, the House voted 54-44
to approve a broad expansion of private employers' rights to
compel workers to produce urine samples for drug tests.
Among other provisions, the bill
would allow testing of an applicant before an applicant is
offered a job. Now, a pre-employment drug test may be
required as part of a full physical exam after a conditional
job-offer is made. It also authorizes random testing and
defines procedures for carrying it out. The bill also would
absolve employers of the responsibility to pay for assessment and
treatment of workers who test positive for drugs if those
expenses aren't covered by insurance.
Since arriving from the House, the
bill has languished in the Senate. Its troubles come down
to simple mathematics.
All 22 Democrats in the Senate
either oppose any change in Iowa's 10-year-old drug testing law
or are unwilling to accept changes of the magnitude proposeded in
the House-approved bill. That leaves the 28 Senate
Republicans to produce all 26 votes needed for Senate
passage. They appear to be significantly short of votes.
At least three Senate Republicans -
Jack Rife of Durant, Derryl McLaren of Farragut and Mary Lundby
of Marion - have parted ways with their party on the proposed
drug-testing law. Each says the House version goes too far
in increasing authority of employers and eroding the privacy
rights of workers.
While supporters of the bill
attempt to keep the debate focused on safety, McLaren says the
powers conferred by the House-approved bill go well beyond
prudent concerns about reducing injuries.
"It's Big Brother,"
McLaren said. "They could be testing for all sorts of
things. They want to know the health weaknesses of their
For Rife's part, he said the law
needs to be changed to make it more useful to employers.
But the House-passed version, he said, is deficient on several
Among other complaints, Rife said,
the bill goes too far in lowering the standard of proof needed
for testing a worker who appears to be under the influence of
drugs or alcohol. It's also deficient in not providing
sufficient punishment for an employer or laboratory that breaches
the confidentiality of the test results, he said.
As chairman of the Senate Business
and Labor Committee, Rife had expected to influence the shape of
the legislation. But earlier this year, Rife began talking
publicly about additional safeguards for workers. Senate
Republican leaders maneuvered to keep the bill out of his
"Leadership thought they were
going to do a slam dunk, and it doesn't work that way," Rife
King, the floor manager of the
bill, said he's about "60 percent confident" that some
version of the house bill will win Senate approval. Within
limits, King said, he's willing to accept amendments to the bill
that would increase safeguards for workers faced with the
prospect of drug tests.
One point on which King said he
won't yield is the provision in the House bill that would relieve
employers of the financial responsibility for assessment and
treatment of workers who test positive for drug or alcohol use.
King, a contractor, said that
sticking the employer with the costs would effectively bar small
companies like his from undertaking a random drug-testing
program. Besides, he said, forcing the employer to pay
would be "to compel employers to pay for the irresponsible
and illegal actions of their employees."
Laue, the lobbyist, deesn't see the
treatment issue that way. On the first instance of a
positive drug test, she said, an employer should cover uninsured
costs of assessment and treatment.
Said Laue: "With rights go
responsibilities. They should deal with the
responsibilities of drug testing."