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Drunken Driving Bills Go To House Lawmakers Fear Funding For Enforcement Inadequate

The Republican Senate on Thursday approved some of the heap of bills to get a grip on drunken drivers, but not before many warned that the politically chic proposals could ring hollow without money to enforce them.

The Senate sent the House four of seven measures on the calendar intended to keep drunken drivers out of their cars, and to hit them harder when they do drive.

The remaining three are expected to pass in the coming days.

The proposals range from automatic license suspensions and auto impoundments before conviction, even for first offenders, to forced installation of equipment to prevent drunken drivers from starting their cars. The bills, pushed by Senate Law & Justice Chairwoman Pam Roach, R-Auburn, also carry heavier fines and more jail time for offenders.

In a rare display of bipartisan concern, one senator after another took the floor to complain that the legislation was more theater than reality because there was no money included to help local police, prosecutors, courts and jails pay to enforce the proposals.

The fight over funding for the package helped stall passage of the remaining three bills. “It’s too hot right now,” Roach said. “We’ll come back another day and do the others.”

Senators from both parties joined together to amend three of the four bills that passed to specify that state government must cover any additional costs of the laws to local governments.

“Without the resources to enforce these laws, the public will be no more safe tomorrow than today,” said Sen. Veloria Loveland, D-Pasco.

Sen. Shirley Winsley, R-Tacoma, said that, as a child, she lost her father to a drunken driver but nonetheless couldn’t support the measures without amendments to provide the money to enforce them.

“None of these proposals will do anything without the funding to carry them out,” she said.

She and others noted that none of the measures was examined by the Senate budget committee even though local government lobbyists have insisted that many of them could have a substantial financial impact on local governments.

Washington Association of Counties lobbyist Michael Shaw said it is hard to pin down costs before local governments actually put the new laws into effect. But there are indications they could run into the millions of dollars.

Senate budget chief Jim West, R-Spokane, said he believed the measures’ fiscal impact would not be that great, and that’s why his Ways and Means Committee did not feel it necessary to study the proposals. Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, West said, also believes the fiscal impact of the package would not be significant.

But that isn’t the sentiment in the Republican House, where judiciary panel Chairman Larry Sheahan, R-Rosalia, has proposed a more modest package of four bills to tighten the grip on drunken drivers.

“We’ll look at the Senate bills, but we are concerned that we not send local governments more mandates than they can afford,” he said.

The Senate voted under the watchful gaze of Keith Johnsen of Issaquah, whose wife, Mary, was killed by a drunken driver last summer. The case had much to do with the energy behind the legislation. Susan West, the drunken driver whose van struck Mary Johnsen as she walked a neighborhood road with her husband, had a long drunken driving history, yet still had her driver’s license.

A measure requiring judges to force repeat and very drunk offenders to install “interlock” devices to keep their cars from starting if they were drunk was renamed the “Mary Johnsen Act.”

xxxx PENDING BILLS Olympia Here’s a look at legislation the Senate sent the House on Thursday to clamp down on drunken drivers: SB6142, to automatically suspend for 90 days the driver’s licenses of even first-time offenders. First offenders would be eligible to qualify for a temporary license to be used only to commute to work after the initial 30 days of the suspension. The suspensions would occur upon arrest and before conviction. Passed 40-8. SB6166, to increase sentences of drunken drivers convicted of automobile homicide by two additional years for each previous drunken driving conviction. Also would limit to once in a lifetime the opportunity to escape a drunken driving prosecution by getting psychological counseling - called a “deferred prosecution.” Currently, drunken drivers qualify for a deferred prosecution every five years. Also would require a person’s drunken driving record to stay on file for life instead of for just five years. Passed 47-1. SB6165, renamed the “Mary Johnsen Act” after a woman killed by a drunken driver in Issaquah last summer, to require judges to force drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol level of at least .15 or with previous drunken driving convictions to have their cars equipped with “ignition interlock” devices. Drivers blow into the devices, and if they are legally drunk, the car won’t start. Passed unanimously. Still awaiting action is a measure to lower a driver’s permitted blood-alcohol level from .10 to .08; a measure to allow more impoundments and forfeitures of drunken drivers’ cars; and bills to provide for tougher punishments from permanent loss of license to longer terms of confinement.