In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to Session 2003
DocumentSession 2003
DocumentBudget and Taxes
DocumentHigher Education
DocumentK-12 Education
DocumentHealth and Welfare
DocumentPublic Safety
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Tougher drunk driving standard passes first test
Larger view
Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, says it's time for Minnesota to adopt a lower threshold for drunk driving, from .10 blood alcohol level to .08. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A bill that would create stricter standards for drunk drivers started moving Wednesday in the Minnesota Senate. On a divided voice vote, the Senate Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee approved a plan to lower the legal blood alcohol limit from .10 percent to .08 percent. Supporters say it will make the highways safer and will secure additional federal money for transportation projects. Critics say the costs to local government will be significant.

St. Paul, Minn. — Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, says it's time for the Legislature to pass the .08 bill. Foley, a retired state trooper, says the tougher standard will deter people from driving drunk. He also says it will secure millions of dollars in federal highway money.

The federal government has tried to entice states to lower the limit by offering additional highway money. After this year, however, the federal government will start penalizing Minnesota and other states if they don't lower the limit. Foley says the state could lose $66.4 million through 2007 if lawmakers don't pass the law.

"The federal legislation -- with its incentives and sanctions -- is only a part of it, but it's an important part when we consider the budgetary problems and the concerns we have," says Foley.

The Minnesota chapter of MADD, an organization that works to stop drunk driving, says 37 percent of the state's car accidents were drinking-related last year. Sen. Dave Knutson, R-Burnsville, says he believes the bill would lower those figures.

Larger view
Image Ken Rockler represents bowling alleys, who oppose .08

"The most important reason to pass .08 is purely public safety. To protect the lives of people that are being lost out there, because we have people driving and operating vehicles with blood alcohol concentration of .08 and are causing accidents," says Knutson.

Knutson says he hopes the Legislature takes the opportunity to generate more money for highway construction projects. He says he's also concerned the state could lose precious highway money if lawmakers don't pass the bill.

The deadline is not definitive, since the federal government will give states all of their highway money if they pass the bill by 2007.

That has opponents of the bill saying the Legislature should delay measure. Keith Carlson with the Metropolitan Inter-County Association says local government is already struggling with Gov. Pawlenty's proposed budget cuts to counties. He urged lawmakers to delay their decision on .08 until the state fixes its fiscal problems.

Carlson says a .08 standard will create more court cases, more prisoners and more work for local police.

"What I am strongly suggesting on behalf of counties is that you have plenty of time to deal with this, and get a better idea of the financial repercussions to the state. I would strongly suggest, from what I have heard, that they have not taken them into account," Carlson says.

Others say they oppose the measure because it targets social drinkers. Ken Rockler with the Bowling Proprietors Association of Minnesota doesn't believe the arguments that lowering the blood alcohol limit will save many lives. He says the current law is adequate, since police can arrest someone who has a blood alcohol content of .04 and hold them.

"If a police officer was to stop anyone because they were weaving, because they had a traffic signal that was out, they can be arrested right now at .04. You do not need to pass this per se law right now to arrest somebody who is impaired at this point. The social drinker is who's targeted and that's why we in Minnestoa are concerned and have been fighting this," says Rockler.

The bill now moves to the Senate Finance Committee. Supporters may face a tougher battle in the Minnesota House. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the bill will get a fair committee hearing. He says, however, that the state already toughened its DWI laws by giving felony convictions to repeat offenders. He says he's concerned the bill will add more costs to the state's budget deficit.

"Whenever any bill this session has a fiscal note attached to it, or a mandate to local governents, its likelihood of passage has certainly dwindled because of the fact that we're trying to balance a $4.5 billion deficit. And it's tough to put costs on top of that $4.5 billion," says Sviggum.

An official with Gov. Pawlenty's office says Pawlenty supports the tougher standards.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects