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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Repeat drunk drivers caught a break on final day of session

OLYMPIA – Among the beneficiaries of Washington’s current divided Legislature and the animus that bloomed during its rush to close up shop last week are people with the dangerous habit of drinking too much, smoking too much pot or downing too many pills, then getting behind the wheel of a car.

Washington has long been veritable “wrist slapper” when it comes to driving under the influence. It took years for lawmakers to agree that a repeat drunken driver should do felony time, and when they did, it was only for the fifth time one is stopped and fail can’t pass a blood alcohol content test.

Of the 46 states that make drunken or drugged driving a felony, Washington is the only one that waits until the fifth arrest and conviction. Most states, including Idaho and Oregon bring the felony hammer down at three.

A few days ago, Washington seemed poised to come closer to the norm by making the fourth DUI a felony. But then, it didn’t.

A bipartisan group in the Senate, led by Spokane Valley Republican Mike Padden, proposed back in the first week of the 2015 session that the felony should kick in on the fourth arrest and conviction. Senate Bill 5105 meandered its way through the process until last April 3, when it received unanimous support in the Senate, and was sent to the House. But the regular session had only three weeks left and the House never got around to voting on it, so like all bills left hanging at the end of a session it went back to its “house of origin.” The Legislature needed a special session, so the Senate passed it again unanimously and sent it back to the House, which didn’t get around to it before that special session ended. But the Legislature needed a second special session that year, so the Senate gave it another unanimous yes vote and it came back to the House, which once again didn’t get around to voting on it.

Thus when lawmakers returned to Olympia this January, the bill SB 5105 was back on the Senate’s plate. It passed unanimously on Feb.ruary 26, was sent to the House where – big surprise – it did not get taken up before the regular session ended. But wait, the Legislature needed a special session this year, too, so the bill went back to the Senate, where on March 28 it got its fifth unanimous approval and was sent to the House.

March 28 was the next to last day of the special session, so obviously time was running out for SB 5105. But the last day of a special session is when budgets are passed and deals are done, and the money to cover the court and prison costs of moving up the felony schedule are in the supplemental budget.

The House and Senate were not the best of buds that last day, but in the late afternoon they had at least a tentative deal that went something like this: The Senate would pass the supplemental budget, which the House already had passed; the House would override the 27 vetoes Gov. Inslee had issued as a way to make lawmakers come up with a budget deal, and pass the drunken driving legislation SB 5105, which by then was known as the Padden DUI bill; the Senate would pass the capital budget and everyone would go home.

Then the Senate vote on the supplemental budget was delayed for hours, in part, because Padden objected to a provision that was setting up community college programs in state prisons on the taxpayers’ dime. That’s not fair to crime victims and good law-abiding citizens who are paying off student loans, he said, and violates a statute that says inmates pay for their courses. There was talk of challenging the whole budget, although in the end he just voted no and spoke against that provision.

But even one no vote from Republicans put the budget in jeopardy because they hold only a two-vote majority and some members of the GOP caucus were agreeing with Padden. Republicans had to test the waters for Democrat support, and some of their more solid yes votes were absent. 

Eventually, the Senate did pass the budget with enough Democrats to make up the difference. Cue the House for its part of the deal.

In record time, the House overrode all 27 vetoes, paused briefly to catch its breath. . . and voted to adjourn without taking up the Padden DUI bill. Senate Republicans began crying foul, some claiming House Democrats’ lack of action was retribution a no quid pro quo over the delay on the budget. Eventually some Republicans even floated a rumor the House was dishing out payback for the Senate GOP investigation of the Corrections Department’s inmate early release scandal, although that wasn’t mentioned by leading Democrats on the House budget team.

Padden himself said he hadn’t been told either scenario. He believed it was just part of the House’s pattern of not voting on the bill because some members are concerned about the cost and others are “sympathetic to addicted people” and believe in treatment rather than punishment. But he was surprised it didn’t get a vote because the bill had Inslee’s support, the backing of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and money in the budget, which the House had passed. “I find it incomprehensible,” he said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said failing to pass legislation for a few programs in the budget isn’t unusual, and denied there was any retribution at work. Some members were concerned about costs, or that the Senate passed the bill after the standard cutoff dates, which was the case both years. It wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the policy, he said.

“Next year, if it gets to the House earlier, the likelihood of success is greater,” Sullivan said.

So if you’re stupid enough to pick up your fourth DUI, you might want to be smart enough to do it this year because eventually that bill is going to get through the House. On the other hand, if you’re stupid enough to already have No. 4, best not get behind the wheel loaded. Lawmakers did double the max penalties for DUI No. 5 to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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