NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday repealed an underage drunken driving law that threatened to cost the state $60 million in road money by running afoul of federal zero-tolerance standards.
The Senate passed the measure 31-1, and the House later followed suit on an 85-2 vote despite several complaints among Republican lawmakers about the federal government interfering in state business.
“Our own federal government is blackmailing us,” said Republican Rep. David Alexander of Winchester.
The state law that took effect in July had raised the driving-under-the-influence penalties for 18- through 20-year-olds. But by also raising the maximum allowable blood alcohol content from 0.02 percent to 0.08 percent for those drivers, the state stood to lose 8 percent of its federal road funding money on Oct. 1
Gov. Bill Haslam hastily called lawmakers into a special session this week to reinstate the 0.02 percent rule, along with the more lenient penalties for drivers below the legal drinking age. The three-day session is projected to cost the state up to $100,000.
Haslam praised lawmakers for acting quickly to ensure the federal road money wasn’t affected.
“Although we disagreed with the interpretation that Tennessee was out of compliance, this special session was necessary to avoid any negative impact to the state,” Haslam said.
Democrats were happy to point out that the GOP-controlled state Legislature and governor’s office had allowed the bill to become law without noticing that it would make Tennessee the only state in the country to violate the federal zero-tolerance standards.
“We’re here today to make sure we receive this badly-needed transportation money that our state somehow messed up and almost turned away,” said Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville.
The main sponsor of the original legislation, Rep. William Lamberth, R-Gallatin, chafed at suggestions that a mistake had been made.
“We didn’t mess anything up,” said Lamberth, arguing that tougher penalties act as a deterrent to drivers.
“You can have the prettiest blacktop roads in this country and the best bridges, but if they are bathed with the blood of innocents that have been killed by drunk drivers, it’s not worth it,” he said.
The repealed legislation had been aimed at bringing drunken driving laws into line for all adults over age 18. Previously, people ages 18 to 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 stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.
The law that went into effect July 1 imposed the same penalties as those faced by drivers 21 and older, including 48 hours in jail, one year of probation, a ban on expunging the crime from the record and mounting penalties for subsequent convictions.
The vote Wednesday returned the state to the law as it stood before July.