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Lawmakers fail to learn from mistakes

Posted: April 25, 2012 - 12:05am

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 building.

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 statute 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 and made a simple observation that any first-year law student should know: the U.S. Constitution clearly provides that immigration and naturalization laws are the responsibility of the federal government, not the states.

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.

Once again, it appears that Georgia’s lawmakers are headed for another embarrassing loss in court.

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, but they choose not to do so.

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 98 percent who were 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.

Simply from the standpoint of dollars and cents, it would be more cost-effective for Georgia’s taxpayers to have a federal judge nullify the drug testing bill.

No rational person thinks it is a good idea to allow tax dollars to be spent on the purchase of illegal drugs. But 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?

During the debate over the drug bill, 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 amendment would have fixed the constitutional flaw. A majority of the Legislature, however, evidently thought it was more important to score cheap political points than to pass a law that was actually constitutional. The Carter amendment was voted down, and now the matter is headed to the federal courts.

Some people never learn.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)

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