Democrats blame Harwell for DUI snafu

State House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart is blaming Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell for creating an environment that has recently put the state in jeopardy of losing $60 million in federal highway funds.

Further from The Tennessean:

“This was not an accident,” the Nashville Democrat said Wednesday. “This was the direct result of specific policies put in place by Speaker Beth Harwell.”

Stewart said Harwell, R-Nashville, is responsible for accelerating the pace of legislative sessions, placing a cap on the number of bills lawmakers can introduce and ignoring concerns about the state’s fiscal review process.

The combination of those things is what has led the state to what Stewart called a “catastrophic failure” which arose after the state approved a new DUI law.

In August, federal authorities told state officials the new law, which changed penalties for 18- to 20-year-olds found driving drunk, could result in the state losing $60 million.

Federal authorities say the state’s law is not in compliance with a federal zero tolerance law, which forces states to set 0.02 as the allowable blood-alcohol level for drivers under 21.

…A spokeswoman for Harwell did not respond to questions about Stewart’s comments, instead pointing out that the legislation in question was approved by an “overwhelming bipartisan vote.”

…Although he did not disagree with Stewart’s call for slowing the pace of the session down, (Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chairman of the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee) took issue with the Democrats’ pointed criticism of Harwell.

“Blaming the speaker for is just playing political football,” White said.

Note: The Democrats’ press release is below.

House Democratic Caucus press release
NASHVILLE- Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Stewart said today a possible loss of $60 million dollars in Federal Highway funds to the State of Tennessee may have been avoided if House Speaker Beth Harwell had paid attention to a report warning her of possible fiscal mistakes.

The funding is in jeopardy because of a bill (HB0622) that was passed by the State Legislature earlier this year. The bill was designed to equalize and toughen DUI penalties for young adult drivers. Part of the legislation, however, raised the minimum standard for blood alcohol content for drivers aged 18 to 20 to the same standard as older adults: .08%. Under federal guidelines, the maximum allowable blood alcohol content for anyone under the age of 21 is .02% and Tennessee now stands to lose almost 10% of its federal road funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration if the state is not in compliance by October 1st.

In a press conference today, flanked by several concerned Democratic lawmakers including House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, Rep. Stewart blamed Speaker Harwell and showed a presentation by the former head of Fiscal Review that said the department is understaffed and unable to keep up the demands placed upon them by the State Legislature.

The May 2015 presentation by then-Fiscal Review Director Jeff Spalding says both the shortening of the time the legislature stays in session and the bill limit instituted by the Speaker has reduced both the research time and internal review time of fiscal notes that explain the financial ramifications of a bill and that fiscal notes now have to be drafted much more quickly.

A separate, independent 2015 review by the National Conference of State Legislatures backs up Spalding’s presentation.

Rep. Stewart said, “Despite two separate reports that say Fiscal Review is overwhelmed, Speaker Harwell takes no action and now we have a bill passed that could cost the state $60 million in lost revenue. How can we be surprised that this happened? In fact, the bill was barreling through the Legislature at the same time we were getting the warning from Director Spalding.”

Stewart added that “Speaker Harwell needs to take action to address some of the issues raised in the report before something else slips through the cracks.” The lawmakers also added that they would support coming back in a special session if one is needed to pass new legislation to keep the highway funding in place.