Facing a firestorm of criticism, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis said Wednesday he may have made a "poor choice of words" when he suggested the state "find a way to divide and conquer" people on public assistance.
However, he stuck by other remarks that the state might consider drug-testing recipients of welfare and other public money, and even some state employees.
The Cornelius Republican made the comments late last week in response to questions at a town meeting in Madison County. Tight budgets, he said, force tough choices.
He compared public assistance for "a woman in a wheelchair" to that for a mother with children out of wedlock.
"At some point, we'll have to say, 'First kid, we'll give you a pass. Second, third or fourth kid, you're on your own. What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance. We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition that needs help and we should help.
"And we need to get those folks to look down at those people who choose to get into a position that makes them dependent on the government and say at some point, 'You're on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies but we're not going to take care of you.' "
N.C. Democratic Chairman David Parker said Tillis is "dividing North Carolinians instead of bringing them together."
"By trying to humiliate our most underprivileged and poverty-stricken citizens, it's clear that Thom Tillis is nothing more than a school-yard bully - he should be ashamed of himself," Parker said.
3 states now use test
The notion of requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug testing reflects a growing trend.
Proposals to drug-test welfare recipients popped up in at least 36 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states - Arizona, Florida and Missouri - have passed some form of legislation.
"States are obviously making some very tough decisions given the budget issues they face," said Rochelle Finzel, a program manager with NCSL. "This falls into the broader discussion about state budgets and what services states should be providing."
In North Carolina, 1.6 million people got benefits through Food and Nutrition Services - the food stamp program - in August. And 23,000 people a month get help through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Tillis said Wednesday that while he may have used poor wording, his broader point, that the state should prioritize welfare spending, is worth considering.
Tillis: Prioritize people
"We're trying to make sure we're getting money to people with the most profound needs," he said. "We have to place a priority on people."
Asked if that might include people who get other forms of government financial help, such as the unemployed, he said it could.
"We were not talking about people who were purely in Health and Human Services, we were talking about anybody getting government assistance," he said. "Perhaps people who are on unemployment ... It may not prove a valuable option, but it has never been explored.
"All of this is about running (government) more efficiently and getting money to people most deserving."
Tillis also stood by a suggestion that some, not all, state employees might undergo drug tests. He said he would discuss it with the state employees association as well as other lawmakers.
"I (said) if it improved workplace safety or performance, it might be worth looking at," Tillis said.
But Dana Cope, executive director of the state employees association, called the notion of wider testing "ludicrous." He said only workers involved in incidents where drugs could be a factor are currently tested.
"Comments like that lead me to believe the first ones who need drug testing are the state lawmakers," he said. "They would spend potentially millions of dollars to enact it and, as far as I know, we don't have a widespread drug problem in state government."
Florida requires welfare applicants to pay for their own drug tests. The state reimburses those who pass. People who fail the test are disqualified for a year. The New York Times reported this week that since July, 7,030 people passed, 32 failed and 1,597 provided no results.
Such laws have faced legal hurdles. The Florida statute is being challenged in federal court.
Reaction by lawmakers to Tillis' comments about welfare recipients fell by party.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican who serves on a number of health and human services committees, called it "a fair and reasonable perspective," saying that less than 10 percent of those in Medicaid drive more than half the cost to the state.
But Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat, said Tillis is "skating on thin ice when he starts talking about discriminating based on whether people are good."
"If he wants to solve problems," she said, "there are better ways than to divide and conquer."
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina also criticized the proposal.
"Drug testing as a requirement for public assistance is not only a violation of an individual's constitutional rights, but notoriously ineffective," state ACLU director Jennifer Rudinger told Raleigh's WRAL-TV.
"Testing every public-aid recipient or state employee... would represent an egregious, wasteful, and unjustified invasion of privacy for potentially millions of North Carolinians."