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 legislation.
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 on."
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 going home.
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 testing."
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 workers.
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 counts.
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 committee.
"Leadership thought they were going to do a slam dunk, and it doesn't work that way," Rife said.
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."