Drug Test State Legislators?

Published 4:21 pm Thursday, January 26, 2012

FARMVILLE – The area's new state senator arrived in Richmond this month with an apparent willingness to include members of the General Assembly in drug testing.

Senator Tom Garrett, a Louisa Republican, told the Farmville Area Chamber of Commerce that he will be among the legislators signing onto the legislation requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, an issue he supported while campaigning.

“It's a bill we're going to co-patron,” Sen. Garrett said, before adding, “I'm seriously contemplating-because I've heard this counter argument a number of times, that look, if you're going to drug test welfare recipients, why not drug test senators and delegates.”

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Not a problem for the former Louisa County Commonwealth's Attorney, who had made a legal career in prosecution prior to his election to the new 22nd District Senate seat that includes Buckingham, Cumberland, Farmville and Prince Edward.

“I'd vote for it,” he said regarding drug testing for members of the House of Delegates and State Senate. “And so we might tuck that in there.”

The first term senator sought to convince his listeners that drug testing of welfare recipients is for their own good and would point them toward rehabilitation, not jail.

“There's nothing punitive about this. It's not targeted at any group of people,” he said during the chamber's January membership meeting prior to the January 11 opening of the General Assembly. “I'm wholly convinced, based on the reading I've done, that you can't break the cycle of poverty where the cycle of addiction exists-except in extraordinary cases.”

So rather than a criminal law, he said, it is not trying to “find people who are using drugs and parade them in front of the courts and convict them.”

Which might prove unconstitutional anyway.

“Quite frankly, you probably do have…some search and seizure issues if you start considering what's in someone's blood stream as (drug) possession,” said the father of two.

Instead, the proposed legislation is intended to “point people toward resources that already exist in the community where they can get help, whether it's Narcotics Anonymous or church and faith-based rehabilitative services,” he stressed.

The law would also keep welfare funds coming to the children of those from whom welfare is blocked due to drug use.

The legislation would “allow an avenue for those funds to get to the children but not to the person who's demonstrated they have an addiction.

“So this ultimately is about allowing people to get to a position where they can help themselves because I fundamentally believe in my very core that you will always help yourself better than the state will help you,” the self-described Cuccinelli Conservative said. “And so if you can get on your feet and be able to help yourself you'll do a better job of it.

Individuals set a higher standard of living goal for themselves than state welfare programs, he believes.

“The state does a decent job of getting people to a subsistence level but the America I grew up in,” Sen. Garrett said, “shouldn't be about getting to a subsistence level. So that's the concept behind that.”

And a popular concept among some legislators.

“There's actually going to be a number of delegates and senators who are in on that legislation…My name will be on it but it won't be at the top of the list,” he told chamber members.

First Term Strategy

Sen. Garrett said that when he's been asked if he's ready for his first General Assembly session he replies, “No…what you try to do is be prepared. But the reality of it is that sooner or later you're going to get down there and something's going to happen that you didn't anticipate, or it's going to happen in a way that you didn't anticipate it, so you prepare the best you can and know there's always going to be a surprise, and I guess that's what keeps things interesting.”

Even veteran legislators understand the “prepared” versus “ready” concept, he said.

Regarding his overall plans, Sen. Garrett said he has a “relatively humble legislative agenda. I think the best way to fail to accomplish anything is to try to accomplish too much all at once and the reality of it is I'm still learning where the broom closet is and the bathroom and the stairwell…”

The senator is patroning or co-patroning approximately 15 pieces of legislation, including moving child torture statutes from labor and employment to criminal codes so their enforcement will not be undercut and inhibited.

He is also moving forward to remove several unfunded mandates.

“And nobody can remember seeing one come off the books,” he said, adding he will try to “capture the low-hanging fruit (first). Two or three this session and pull three or four off next session…and sooner or later we might start making some real progress. You start with the easy stuff because it's never been done before and then you work toward more ambitious goals…”

Another bill that bears his name would return all revenue from traffic fees and fines to the locality of their origin, to counteract another legislator's bill that would send all such revenue-an estimated $95 million, statewide-into the state treasury.

“If the Town of Farmville police department writes a traffic ticket, adjudicated in Prince Edward County Court, the money goes to the Town of Farmville,” he said of his legislation.

The senator also told chamber members that the only time he ever attended a Board of Supervisors meeting in Louisa as commonwealth's attorney was to ask the Board for local funds to compensate for state reductions in funding to his office.

“'I'm not asking for a penny more,'” he recalled telling supervisors. “…The (state) comp board cut funding every single year. And so the County had to find the money and they did, God bless 'em, to keep us whole…”

Sen. Garrett noted his good fortune in working in a County “in good enough economic shape to do that.”

Local Office Hours

Though Sen. Garrett spoke of opening a district office in Farmville, following the election, he now plans to meeting with constituents in each locality.

“And we hope to get here on a monthly basis,” he said of Farmville and Prince Edward, where he will most likely use the Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library.

Were he to open a district office in one locality, everyone else, he said, would say, “What about us?'” he explained.

Noting the 22nd district is “bigger than the state of Delaware,” the new senator said, “I can't wrap my brain around one district office. (But) if we had one it would be in Farmville” because of its location mid-district.

“We're going to get in every locality on a routine and rotating basis,” he said, noting Cumberland would likely see him “every two months.”

The 22nd District, he said, “is a very large piece of real estate.”

Uranium Mining

Asked about the hot topic of uranium mining in Virginia, Sen. Garrett said his approach toward energy is “if it's safe, why aren't we doing it?”

At this point, the senator added, “I'm still looking to determine if I think it's safe. If it is safe, we ought to be doing it. There is an absolute energy looming in America and I'm convinced that about nine-tenths of it is self-imposed.

He spoke favorably of wind and solar power when the technology exists to store wind and solar power for times when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.

Job Creation

Regarding job creation, Sen. Garrett noted, among other things, the unique asset the community has in Hampden-Sydney College and Longwood University, their presence aiding in business attraction, offering plusses many rural communities do not possess.