OLYMPIA – For almost four years, Sen. Mike Padden has been a bit like Ahab, chasing the great white whale that is a felony conviction for the fourth time a driver is caught driving drunk or high on drugs in Washington.
The Spokane Valley Republican came close many times. The Senate passed such a proposal six times in the past two years, usually unanimously, and sent it to the House. There it found several ways to die, in committee or without a full vote before the Legislature would adjourn.
This year, Padden again introduced the bill to knock one drunk driving arrest off the current statute that makes a fifth DUI a felony. Families who have lost loved ones to drivers who were drunk or stoned came to Olympia again to tell their stories to legislative committees. The Senate unanimously passed the bill, again.
The bill went to the House, where it got a hearing and favorable vote in the Public Safety Committee a month later, and a hearing and favorable vote in the Appropriations Committee early this month.
But a floor vote hadn’t been scheduled by the beginning of this week, and with the regular session scheduled to end Sunday, the bill’s future seemed to be in doubt. Even though the Legislature was going to need at least one special session – recent history suggests it might need two – that would complicate the bill’s progress, sending it back to the Senate for another vote before it could be considered by the House.
Late Thursday night, however, the House brought up the bill and passed it handily, 85-11. On Friday morning, Gov. Jay Inslee mentioned the strengthening of drunk-driving laws as one of the positive things the Legislature has accomplished, while decrying the fact they will need a special session to pass a budget. His staff said that while that’s not a guarantee, he intends to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
On Friday, Padden said several things helped put the bill over the top this year. Separate legislation calls for money for treatment in special programs for those who get a second or third DUI. Another bill sets up a program to train forensic phlebotomists who can take blood samples of DUI suspects outside of a hospital setting. A special $50 fee in his bill will help provide money for some pilot programs, one of them in Spokane, for daily monitoring of DUI offenders.
He credited Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who serves as speaker pro tem, for helping negotiate some details of the bill, and for family members and substance abuse experts who made repeat trips to Olympia.
“I think, over time, it finally penetrated,” he said.
But what may have put the bill over the top, he said, was the recent arrest in Renton of a driver for his 11th DUI.
Current estimates say the bill will eventually result in about 200 more felony DUI prosecutions a year, Padden said.
In the House, among those voting no was Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, who said he agrees that repeat drunk drivers need to be dealt with forcefully, but questions the bill’s focus on punishment. Treatment programs are struggling to recruit and retain substance abuse professionals and the Senate had proposed nothing to help that. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Ormsby said he hopes to change that in the compromise budget that finally passes the Legislature.
He also has a problem with a prison sentence for a fourth DUI in cases that don’t involve a vehicular assault or death.
“I don’t disagree that some of these folks should be away from society, but prison is for rapists and murderers,” Ormsby said.
Padden argues that even by making the fourth DUI a felony, Washington is an “outlier” among states that have such laws. Idaho and Oregon charge a felony for the third DUI.
For anyone who was guessing Padden, 70, would retire after getting the fourth DUI bill passed, he said guess again.
“I will, in the not too distant future, try to go to three. But we’ll give them some time,” he said.