Costs could affect how tough new DUI laws would get

Washington’s lawmakers and rookie governor are locked in an almost perfect stasis thus far in this not-so-special session and appear capable of remaining in this state for a few days longer.

The most overt signs of movement surround an effort to deal with people who are getting arrested repeatedly for drunken driving, of late nabbed at the scene of a tragedy they’ve caused.

There’s momentum among Democratic and Republican lawmakers from big cities and small to throw the book at these offenders to get them off the road before they lay waste to innocent lives — if they have not already.

Bills motoring through the law-and-order committees in the House and Senate require these repeat law breakers serve longer jail sentences, install ignition interlock devices in their cars, undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and potentially wear electronic monitors to alert cops when they imbibe booze of any proof.

But getting Washington residents out of harm’s way in this manner won’t be financially cheap or politically easy.

No one knows what it will cost cities, counties and the state to do everything prescribed in the 80-plus page bills though the collective presumption is it will be in the millions.

Make that tens of millions should, as some lawmakers want, Washington follow the suggestion of the National Transportation Safety Board and lower the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration to .05 percent from the current .08. Doing that would lead to more drunken drivers behind bars and send criminal justice costs soaring.

The forces of Can We Afford It? are going to collide with those of How Can We Not? before this session concludes and the collision could derail the endeavor.

Democrats are willing to pay with new or higher taxes — preferably on beer — rather than cover the cost by cutting other programs. Republicans are unwilling thus far to embrace the same approach, preferring instead to inject the matter of funding into the slow-motion negotiations on a new state budget.

Meanwhile, Democrats just might try to guilt Republicans into supporting a stream of new tax revenue to pay for the crackdown they desire.

Ever since voters ended Washington’s monopoly on the hard liquor industry, lawmakers have binged in a bipartisan fashion to make alcohol available wherever food and fun can be found.

Last week, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed new laws making it easier to offer samples or sell beer, wine and distilled spirits in a theater, at a farmers market and while shopping for groceries. One bill that almost reached his desk would have offered glasses of wine to those getting a manicure, pedicure or facial at a day spa.

“We have a complete disconnect,” Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said before voting to pass the impaired driving bill in last week’s Senate Law and Justice Committee meeting.

“We have had a steady drumbeat during this legislative session and the previous two legislative sessions of having more and more and more and more access to alcohol in our society,” she said. “We are at the root of the cause.”

Eyes opened wide at her comments, which in this not-so-special session amounted to major movement.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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