Haslam to call special session to save $60M in highway funds

AP News
Posted: Sep 02, 2016 5:26 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday he'll call a special session of the General Assembly to try to fix the state's drunken driving law and save $60 million in federal highway funds.

The move comes after the U.S. Transportation Department determined state law doesn't comply with a federal "zero tolerance" drunken driving statute. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated Tennessee would lose $60 million in federal funding if it remained out of compliance as of Oct. 1.

Under federal rules, the maximum allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under 21 is 0.02 percent. The new Tennessee law raised that limit to 0.08 percent for 18- to 20-year-olds but added tougher penalties for violators. The 0.02 standard remained in place for drivers through age 17.

Lawmakers have said they did not intend for the state to drop out of compliance with the federal statute.

Haslam had hoped federal Transportation Department officials would allow the state legislature to address the issue when it reconvenes in January.

"Disappointingly, we found out today the Department is not going work with us on that," Haslam told reporters Friday. "To avoid putting $60 million at risk, we will be having a special session sometime in the next three weeks."

He said he does not yet know what the special session will cost or how many days lawmakers will have to meet.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart has blamed Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell's management of the regular legislative session for the problem. He said Harwell sped up the session to the point where a proper fiscal review — which could've identified the issue in the drunken driving law — could not be carried out, despite warnings from her own fiscal review chief.

A spokeswoman for Harwell did not immediately respond to a phone message and email on Friday afternoon.

Democratic lawmakers had previously called on Republican legislative leaders to hold a special session for a different reason. They want to oust state Rep. Jeremy Durham, whom a Tennessee Attorney General's Office investigation accused of using his position to sexually harass at least 22 women.

Durham denied most of the allegations, but he suspended his campaign for re-election. Although he lost the Republican primary last month, he will still qualify for a lifetime pension unless he is expelled.

Haslam said it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether they want to include a vote to expel Durham as part of the special session.

"That's not our role," he said.