The Des Moines Register
Friday, January 9, 1998, Page 1M

Drug testing again on agenda

Last year's debate to continue


    When Republicans gained control of the Iowa Legislature in the 1996 elections, it seemed certain they would quickly give employers more legal authority to test workers for drug and alcohol use.
    But even though the GOP campaign had received strong financial support from business leaders, party leaders found that they couldn't pass a bill on the contentious issue of workplace drug testing.
    The political dispute will resume next week, when lawmakers return for their 1998 session.
    "We're going to make a real push for that," said Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican.  "I think there is a recognition this drug situation has to be dealt with. We have a very weak law."
    Approved in 1987 as a compromise between business and labor groups, the Iowa drug-testing law prohibits random tests.  It generally limits testing to a few specific instances in which workers are given advance notice.  If someone is acting oddly or in an unsafe manner, an employer must have probably cause to believe the worker is impaired by drugs or alcohol before ordering a test.  One-time proof of drug use may not result in firing, and the employer must pick up costs of evaluation and treatment not covered by insurance.
    Led by the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, employers' lobbyists are asking lawmakers to permit random testing.  They also want the standard for testing in an individual situation - nor probably cause - reduced to reasonable suspicion of drug or alcohol impairment.  Employers also want to be relieved of the obligation to pay the costs of evaluation and treatment after a worker has tested positive.
    Supporters of the proposed changes say they are necessary to assure the safety of workers.  Opponents say such rules would intrude on the privacy of innocent workers, and that the additional powers sought by employers also could be used as harassment.
    The Iowa House voted over-whelmingly last February to approve broadened drug-testing authority.  But in the final days of the 1997 session last April, a version of the drug-testing bill stalled in the Senate on a 25-25 vote.  The bill failed when three Republicans - Derryl McLaren of Farragut, Mary Lundby of Marion and Jack Rife of Durant - joined all 22 Senate Democrats in voting against the bill.
    Under normal circumstance, supporters of the bill would beed to win the vote of only one of the three hold-out Republicans to assemble the 26 votes needed for Senate passage.  But earlier this week, Republican James Black of Algona, a supporter of stronger drug-testing authority, resigned from the Senate.  That means two more votes are needed if supporters of stronger drug-testing laws are to win a majority in the Senate.
    McLaren said this week that he has floated a compromise to supporters of the bill that could swing his vote.  He wants stronger privacy protections and a requirement that employers pay for treatment for alcoholism.  However, he would not require them to pay for treatment of addiction to illegal drugs.
    Lobbyists say it's impossible to predict the fate of the drug-testing bill in the upcoming legislative session.
    "It's become an emotional, partisan issue," said Janice Laue, an opponent of the bill who represents the Iowa Federation of Labor.
    Matt Eide, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said his group is optimistic.  "But there's a lot of politics involved, especially in an election year."

Key players

These are key legislators in the debate over expanding the authority of employers to test workers for the use of drugs and alcohol.

Sen. Derryl McLaren, R-Farragut. Opposed the bill in 1997, but has indicated a willingness to compromise.

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Derryl McLaren

Sen. Mary Lundby, R-Marion. Another 1997 opponent who may be persuaded to switch sides on the issue.

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Mary Lundby

Sen. Steve King, R-Kiron. Floor manager of the bill pending in the Senate.

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Steve King

The Des Moines Register
Friday, January 9, 1998, Page 1M