UPDATE: TN could lose federal road funding due to new law
Tennessee officials are scrambling to avoid losing $60 million in federal road funding because of a new state law that runs afoul of zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers who have been drinking.
UPDATE: Tennessee lawmakers are fighting to keep $60 million in funding because of a new law that's said to be in violation of federal zero-tolerance guidelines for underage drivers who have been drinking.
Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly supported a new law that gives stricter penalties to drunk drivers between 18-and-20 years old.
The law passed in April but just last week the state was told that change does not comply with federal guidelines and Tennessee is now at risk of losing funding.
"Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, and no one mentioned this during the entire two years this bill was pending, apparently that runs afoul to a federal regulation that we were unaware of," State Representative William Lamberth said.
Until this year, if someone under 21 was pulled over for drinking and driving he or she would be charged with Underage Driving While Impaired, not a DUI.
State lawmakers changed that in April with the hopes of making the penalties more strict.
The bill was sponsored by Representative Lamberth out of Sumner County.
"We said look if you're an adult whether 18 or 80 you should face the same penalty and be held to the same standard, it's what we thought made sense," Lamberth said.
But now the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that change could cost the state $60 million in funding.
The new DUI law changes the allowable blood alcohol content for 18-20 year olds from 0.02 to 0.08.
The new law carries the same penalties for adults, which Lamberth said could include jail time, probation and it showing up on the driver's permanent record.
Federal funding, however, requires states to limit B.A.C. levels to 0.02 for drivers under 21.
"The new law raising the allowable BAC for 18 to 20 year-old drivers above the federal limit makes the roads more dangerous for everyone and does not comply with the federal zero tolerance law," said Communications Director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Bryan Thomas.
It's not clear which TDOT projects would be affected if the state lost 60-million dollars.
TDOT's spokesperson B.J. Doughty said TDOT is currently in talks with federal agencies to filed a rebuttal. TDOT cites two other current state laws they hope could help keep Tennessee in compliance and maintain state funding.
NHTSA is expected to decide by the end of the week but offered Channel 3 this statement:
"If Tennessee is determined to be out of compliance on October 1, 2016, the state will forfeit approximately $60 million in Federal highway funds,” Thomas said.
If NHTSA rules TN is still not in compliance, lawmakers have asked for a waiver to wait until January to resolve the issue to avoid a special session and said they will do whatever they have to to be eligible for that federal funding.
Thomas said Tennessee is currently the only state in the country that's not in compliance.
PREVIOUS STORY: (AP) - Tennessee officials are scrambling to avoid losing $60 million in federal road funding because of a new state law that runs afoul of zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers who have been drinking.
Officials with the state Transportation Department in a teleconference Monday urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to hold off on a formal decision to cut the state's road funding by 8 percent until after reviewing arguments that another state law should keep Tennessee in compliance.
The federal agency said it would rule on the state's claim by the end of the week, TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said.
Federal guidelines require a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law raises that limit to 0.08 for 18- to 20-year-olds but also metes out the stronger penalties for offenders.
"The new law raising the allowable BAC for 18 to 20-year-old drivers above the federal limit makes the roads more dangerous for everyone and does not comply with the federal zero tolerance law," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement Monday. "If Tennessee is determined to be out of compliance on October 1, 2016, the state will forfeit approximately $60 million in Federal highway funds."
In a letter to the agency Friday, state Transportation Commissioner John Schroer argued that another law on the books in Tennessee makes it illegal for underage people to possess or consume any alcohol, and that even the odor of booze on the breath could be enough to convict. Schroer called that a "true zero-tolerance law" that should meet the federal standard.
If the federal agency disagrees, state lawmakers would have to go into special session to make any change to come into compliance. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said it would be "premature" to say whether he would call the Legislature back into session.
"We owe it to Tennessee taxpayers to do everything we can to make sure these tax dollars stay in Tennessee, and the state is having the appropriate discussions at the federal level right now," she said.
Republican State Rep. William Lamberth, a former Sumner County prosecutor and the main sponsor of the bill making the changes to the state's underage drunken driving law, said last week that lawmakers had not been made aware of the potential danger to federal road money if his bill became law.
Lamberth said the legislation was aimed at cracking down on drunken driving among young adults by imposing tougher sentences for offenders. The measure passed on a 91-2 vote in the House and 30-0 in the Senate. Haslam signed the bill into law April.
Under the previous driving-while-impaired law for people under the age of 21, the penalties involved the loss of a license for a year and a $250 fine, Lamberth said. The conviction could later be expunged and there were no enhanced penalties for repeat offenders, he said.
The new law carries the same penalties as driving under the influence for adults, including 48 hours in jail, one year of probation and a ban on expunging the crime from the record.
"There's a huge jump in penalties," Lamberth said. "It was good policy, and that it will save lives. But it if it is against federal, then it's obviously something we can't afford."
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