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Paynesville Press - March 31, 2004

State considering switch to 0.08 percent limit for DWI

By Sarah Arnquist

Due to financial pressure from the federal government, Minnesota may soon join 47 other states in the nation in having a 0.08 percent legal limit for alcohol consumption while driving.

Minnesota stands to lose $6 million in federal highway funding this year if it doesn't lower its lower limit for driving under the influence from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. The state could lose up to $100 million in federal funding by 2007 if it does not change.

The bill to change the DWI limit (HF97/SF58) passed easily in the DFL-controlled Senate in early February on a 48-18 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) said after the vote that it was a move in the right direction. "This is not a return to prohibition," he said. "What we are asking is for a new sense of responsibility, a new sense of responsibility for Minnesota drivers."

Johnson and Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel) voted in favor of changing to a 0.08 percent legal limit for DWI.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) was absent from the Senate that day but has stated that she opposes lowering the limit, due to the financial impact for enforcement of the lower limit.

The bill has raised more heated discussion in the Republican-controlled House. The House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee approved lowering the limit with amendments in February, and the House Transportation Finance Committee approved changing the state's DWI standard to 0.08 but added an amendment that would delay the switch until 2007.

The Senate bill calls for the new standard to be effective starting in August 2004.

Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) said he does not support lowering the legal alcohol limit, but he does believe some form of the bill will be adopted.

"My main concern with lowering the threshold is that it's not a scientific number," Stang said.

Minnesota, Delaware, and Colorado are the only three states left in the nation without the 0.08 standard for DWI.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty switched his stance to support the lower limit last fall. Pawlenty said the lower limit would improve public safety and bring more federal money to the state.

House Republican leaders have blocked the bill in the past.

Opponents of lowering the limit argue that more drunk driving arrests will burden financially-strapped counties, and that if the legislature passes the bill it should also give counties more money to enforce it. During a time of budget stress, the delay until 2007 is especially important, opponents say.

Minnesota corrections officials predict that there will be 1,320 new DWI convictions each year if the state enacts a 0.08 standard.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon) said he supports a 0.08 standard, but he would prefer to delay its enactment until 2007, when counties would have time to financially prepare for more DWI arrests and convictions. He also noted that any lost federal dollars would be restored if the state makes the 2007 cutoff date.

A Department of Finance study predicts the new DWI limit would cost cities and counties $1.5 million statewide.

Supporters of lowering the limit say the legislature has stood in the way of a 0.08 standard long enough. Last year, 239 people died in alcohol-related incidents on Minnesota roads. The state estimates that 14 fewer people would have died if the lower standard had been in place.

(Editor's Note: Arnquist is a senior journalism major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is covering the 2004 legislative session for the Paynesville Press.)

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