Special session to avoid $60M fed funding loss?

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee officials are scrambling to avoid losing $60 million in federal road funding because of a new state law that runs afoul of zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers who have been drinking.

Officials with the state Transportation Department in a teleconference Monday urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to hold off on a formal decision to cut the state’s road funding by 8 percent until after reviewing arguments that another state law should keep Tennessee in compliance.

The federal agency said it would rule on the state’s claim by the end of the week, TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said.

Federal guidelines require a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law raises that limit to 0.08 for 18- to 20-year-olds but also metes out the stronger penalties for offenders.

“The new law raising the allowable BAC for 18 to 20 year-old drivers above the federal limit makes the roads more dangerous for everyone and does not comply with the federal zero tolerance law,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement Monday. “If Tennessee is determined to be out of compliance on October 1, 2016, the state will forfeit approximately $60 million in Federal highway funds.”

In a letter to the agency Friday, state Transportation Commissioner John Schroer argued that another law on the books in Tennessee makes it illegal for underage people to possess or consume any alcohol, and that even the odor of booze on the breath could be enough to convict. Schroer called that a “true zero-tolerance law” that should meet the federal standard.

If the federal agency disagrees, state lawmakers would have to go into special session to make any change to come into compliance. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said it would be “premature” to say whether he would call the Legislature back into session.

“We owe it to Tennessee taxpayers to do everything we can to make sure these tax dollars stay in Tennessee, and the state is having the appropriate discussions at the federal level right now,” she said.

Republican State Rep. William Lamberth, a former Sumner County prosecutor and the main sponsor of the bill making the changes to the state’s underage drunken driving law, said last week that lawmakers had not been made aware of the potential danger to federal road money if his bill became law.

Lamberth said the legislation was aimed at cracking down on drunken driving among young adults by imposing tougher sentences for offenders. The measure passed on a 91-2 vote in the House and 30-0 in the Senate. Haslam signed the bill into law April.

Under the previous driving-while-impaired law for people under the age of 21, the penalties involved the loss of a license for a year and a $250 fine, Lamberth said. The conviction could later be expunged and there were no enhanced penalties for repeat offenders, he said.

The new law carries the same penalties as driving under the influence for adults, including 48 hours in jail, one year of probation and a ban on expunging the crime from the record.

“There’s a huge jump in penalties,” Lamberth said. “It was good policy, and that it will save lives. But it if it is against federal, then it’s obviously something we can’t afford.”