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Lower DWI limit hits a snag
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DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza accuses Republican leader Steve Sviggum of being "the roadblock to adopting .08," the lower drunk driving limit. (MPR file photo)
The push for tougher drunk-driving laws at the Capitol may have hit a snag. The Senate last week overwhelmingly passed a bill that would lower the blood-alcohol threshold from the current .10 to .08. But leaders in the House say the lower standard could present a hardship to the cities and counties that would be charged with enforcing it. They say they'd prefer to delay the tighter standard for another three years.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota, Colorado, and Delaware are the only three states in the nation not to have adopted the tougher .08 standard. Supporters of a change viewed this year's legislative session as pivotal. Gov. Tim Pawlenty threw his support behind the measure -- and the Senate adopted the plan last week in an overwhelming bipartisan show of support.

But Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he's not in a rush to embrace the new threshold. That led House DFL Minority Leader Matt Entenza to accuse the speaker of obstructionism.

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Image Steve Sviggum

"You have the leader of the House, who stands apart from Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate and the governor. And he has been the roadblock to adopting .08, and he continues to be the roadblock," Entenza says.

Sviggum, however, says he does support .08, but not an immediate enactment. He says the change amounts to an unfunded mandate on local police departments, county sheriffs, and prosecutors who will have a new class of criminals to monitor and prosecute.

A Department of Finance study predicts the new rule would cost cities and counties $1.5 million statewide. Sviggum says that's unacceptable.

"We shall fund our mandates. The counties and the citizens -- the taxpayers -- would appreciate that. And not to fund that means that Rep. Entenza would be raising property taxes," Sviggum says.

Those who support action this year, however, say the state stands to lose even more money if it delays. Beginning this year, the federal government will withhold a portion of highway dollars from states that resist the change. That could amount to $60 million over the next three years.

What kind of message are we sending ... by pushing it off for three more years? It's either good policy or it isn't.
- Rep. Steve Strachan, R-Lakeville, also a police officer

But Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, says the loss is only temporary. Howes is sponsoring a bill that would adopt the .08 threshold, but not until 2007. He says at that point, the cities and counties will have had time to plan for the costs of the lower limit -- and he says any lost federal dollars will be restored so long as states make the 2007 cutoff date.

"If it's enacted '07 -- August 1st, '07 -- we'll have the money in hand by February or March, all in one lump sum," says Howes. "And if we're not smart enough to figure out we're going to have that money, and budget with that in mind, then maybe we all should look for another job."

Even so, opponents of a delay say the state will lose more in foregone interest and inflated costs for road projects if lawmakers delay until 2007. Rep. Steve Strachan, R-Lakeville, is a police officer and the chief House sponsor of a bill to enact the new standard this year.

"There's still an opportunity cost to money that would be here, but is not for those three years -- Number 1. Number 2, the projects that could be done with that money but aren't," says Strachan. "And Number 3, what kind of message are we sending, in my opinion, by pushing it off for three more years? It's either good policy or it isn't."

Supporters of quick action say .08 doesn't just save dollars, it saves lives -- an estimated 14 per year in Minnesota. Strachan says it seems like most lawmakers are willing to accept the new standard. He says it's just a matter of when it should take effect -- and that, he says, leaves room for compromise.

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