Sunday column: On the foul-up blame game

The special legislative session that convenes Monday to fix a $60 million mistake has inspired a political blame game that will likely continue with speeches to be made while giving rubber-stamp approval to the required fix.

There is, indeed, fault to be found in the situation. But the game participants seem to be ignoring a lot of it, maybe including the fundamental problem.

Democrats have taken the lead in finger pointing, starting when the U.S. Department of Transportation pointed out last month that a bill approved in April lowered the legal presumption for drunken driving from .08 blood alcohol content to .02 for people aged 18 to 21.

In doing so, the federal government bureaucracy, regularly denounced for incompetence by Tennessee politicians, pointed its finger at a law declaring that states seeking federal highway funding handouts must set the DUI standard at .02 for anyone under age 21. Since the state is out of compliance, the feds said, Tennessee can scratch $60 million worth of federal subsidies from its transportation budget unless things are changed by Oct. 1. Hence the September special session, called by Gov. Bill Haslam.

This showed the feds are far more efficient than our own state politicians and bureaucrats. The bill in question was actually introduced on Feb. 2, 2015. The Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee, relying on input from state government departments, officially estimated in a “fiscal note” that it would cost taxpayers a total of $16,500.

In other words, nobody noticed the $60 million mistake for a year and a half. That includes Haslam, who often points out that his staff reviews every bill passed by the Legislature before he affixes a signature.

Of course, Haslam pointed a finger back to the feds with help from some other Republicans. Basically, they pointed out that other provisions of state law mean that juveniles caught with any sort of alcohol while driving are in big trouble and thus the feds should ignore the technical foul-up until it can be fixed next year; that the spirit of the federal law is respected even if the letter of the law is not.

Politically, maybe that argument would have worked with a Republican president overseeing the federal funding. With a Democrat overseeing things in Washington, no wink and nod was forthcoming. Ergo, the Republican reasoning seems to be that this is all President Barack Obama’s fault.

Democrats were more direct in the blame game. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart and others pointed directly at Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell. The gist of their arguments is that Harwell caused this “catastrophic failure” (Stewart’s words) by railroading legislation through the process so rapidly that there is no chance for proper vetting. That’s not an unreasonable proposition for the legislative railroad in general, but it wasn’t really accurate in this situation.

The Democrats cited 2015 reviews that found the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee was overworked and underpaid. But they did not note that, in the year the DUI bill was pending, the problem was addressed — with Harwell’s backing — by increasing staff and pay while hiring a new boss, replacing a fellow some Democrats thought had GOP partisan leanings.

Maybe that wasn’t enough, as the miscue indicates, but a substantial effort at improvement was made by the leader who is being criticized.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that all but two Democrats — Reps. Kevin Dunlap of Sparta and John Mark Windle of Livingston — joined their GOP colleagues in backing the bill.

The bill was presented by the respected Republican sponsors, Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge and Rep. William Lamberth of Portland, as getting tougher on juvenile drunken drivers. While lowering the .08 standard to .02, it also made the 18-to-21 drivers subject to the 48-hour minimum jail time that adults face.

The focus was thus on the politically popular notion of being tough on crime. Finding the unintended consequences requires the not-so-popular task of tedious, time-consuming research by people with experience and institutional knowledge..

It’s safe to predict that the $60 million fix will be approved quickly in the three-day special session. It’s equally safe to predict that nothing will be done about that fundamental problem of inadequate review.

But, hey, with a little luck, many years will pass before some efficient federal bureaucrat notices another expensive mistake. And then the folks who made it can blame the federal government for insisting on a fix.

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a column running in Sunday’s News Sentinel, HERE.