Haslam: Special DUI session may be necessary to save $60M fed funding

Gov. Bill Haslam says he doesn’t want to call a special September session of the legislature to fix the state’s drunk driving laws, but the possibility of losing $60 million if Tennessee doesn’t might just force him to do so.
Further from WPLN:

The problem is the state’s limit for blood alcohol content for 18- to 20-year-olds. Federal highway authorities say it has to be .02, but Tennessee lawmakers raised it to .08 earlier this year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told state officials last week that it will dock Tennessee’s highway funds if the state doesn’t bring the limit back down by Oct. 1. Haslam says the warning has his attention.

“One way or another, we’ve got to figure out a way to not do that. I mean, $60 million is a lot of money.”

State lawmakers say they didn’t know about the federal government’s policy when they raised the blood alcohol limit for young adults. They were actually trying to toughen the penalties for underage DUIs by adding jail time.

Haslam hopes to convince federal authorities to hold off until lawmakers reconvene in January. He says Tennessee’s infrastructure needs are too big to punish the state for an oversight, but he would go along with a special session if that’s what it takes to keep the money.

Haslam was also asked by reporters Wednesday whether a special session, if one were called, could include a debate over expelling state Rep. Jeremy Durham… Durham lost in the primary earlier this month but remains in line to receive a state pension if allowed to serve out his term.

The governor said he favors limiting the scope to transportation funding, but no decision has been made about whether to include discussion about Durham.

Further, from an AP story on the governor’s comments:

Under federal rules, the maximum allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under 21 is 0.02 percent. The new Tennessee law raised that limit to 0.08 percent for 18- to 20-year-olds, but added tougher penalties for violators. The 0.02 standard remained in place for drivers through age 17.

…Sponsors of the legislation, which passed with near unanimous support and almost no debate, argue that the change was meant to bring penalties for all adults over age 18 into line.

Previously, people between ages 18 and 20 convicted of driving while intoxicated faced the loss of a license for a year and a $250 fine. The conviction could later be expunged and there were no enhanced penalties for repeat offenders.

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

That the changes endangered federal road funding was an “unintended consequence,” said Haslam.

“They actually thought they were making it a greater penalty to drink underage,” the governor said.

Republican officials argue that unrelated state laws make it illegal for people under the drinking age to possess or consume any alcohol, meaning that underage drivers with even trace amounts of booze on their breath can be charged.

Haslam said he’s holding on to hope that a “workaround” will be approved to allow Tennessee lawmakers to wait to address the issue when they return for their regular session in January.

State Transportation Department spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said the federal agency has agreed to consider Tennessee’s claims before making a formal decision on the fate of road funding by the end of the week.