Saving taxpayer money has never been so expensive.
Some Republican state lawmakers are so intent on testing welfare applicants for drug use that they're willing to call a special legislative session to override Gov. Pat McCrory's veto.
GOP leaders started rallying the troops last week to enact House Bill 392 over McCrory's objections.
"There have been a lot of phone calls throughout the caucus," Rep. Susan Martin said. "I think they're looking to see what the support is. I get the feeling we will probably be going back."
The bill would have required state aid applicants suspected of drug use to pass a drug screen before they'd be eligible to receive benefits. This might sound like a good idea in theory, but in practice, it's a legal and moral minefield.
State officials would be able to test anyone if they find "reasonable suspicion" that the applicant is a drug user or addict. The bill's broad and troubling definition of reasonable suspicion includes the existence of a criminal charge -- not a conviction, just an unproven accusation.
McCrory vetoed HB 392 and instead signed an executive order requiring social workers to check aid applicants' backgrounds for outstanding arrest warrants -- a commonsense provision in the bill that he supports.
In an encouraging nod to individual rights, McCrory called the bill "a recipe for government overreach and unnecessary government intrusion." We agree.
Even if screening those only accused and not found guilty of drug offenses posed no constitutional problems, there's no proof that doing so would save much if any taxpayer money.
Florida passed a similar law, and in the four months it was in force before federal courts struck it down, only 2.6 percent of aid applicants tested positive for illegal drugs. That's less than a third of the state's estimated overall percentage of drug users.
"This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse," McCrory said in a statement announcing the veto. "Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction. It makes no sense to repeat those mistakes in North Carolina."
As we've pointed out before, turning away a poor person with a substance abuse problem may cost society more than it saves. If the welfare applicant becomes homeless and turns to crime, taxpayers will pay police to bring charges, underwrite the jail stay and foot the bill for a court-appointed lawyer.
Those costs and the frequency at which North Carolina would incur them are admittedly speculative. But we're not done adding up HB 392's tab.
Holding a special session of the General Assembly is sure to have some associated costs. Lawmakers receive a $104 per-diem allowance for each day their chamber is in session. Multiply that times 120 representatives and 50 state senators.
Add to that the expense of defending HB 392 in federal court when civil liberties and social justice groups challenge it. How hard will North Carolina's independently elected Democratic attorney general work to preserve a law with which he disagrees?
Assemble a dream team of constitutional law experts, paralegals and clerks to refight battles other states already have lost. Then add up everyone's hourly rate, multiply by several thousand and compare that to the money we'll save by keeping welfare checks out of a few hundred or a few thousand hands.
Call us cynics, but we don't think North Carolina taxpayers will come out ahead with this kind of arithmetic.
Republican leaders would be pound-foolish and penny-wise if they insist on dragging our state through the constitutional quicksand of welfare drug tests. If this is how our leaders pinch pennies, we'd hate to see them on a spending spree.