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'Fiscal realities' reduce penalties in DWI bill

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The sponsor of a bill to get tough on drunken driving has removed key provisions because they cost too much.

''I've had to swallow a very bitter pill here,'' Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

But he said the bill still contains worthwhile elements.

Rokeberg introduced House Bill 4 last January in response to several high-profile fatal drunken driving cases in 2000, including an Anchorage case in which a man with six previous convictions of driving while intoxicated struck and killed a college student.

The bill passed the House last year and is now winding its way through Senate committees.

Rokeberg's latest version of the bill no longer calls for stiffer sentences for most DWI offenders. He said ''fiscal realities'' forced him to pare the bill's $4 million costs. The state is facing a projected budget gap of about $1 billion next year.

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said that after eight years of fiscal austerity, legislators know without being told they've got to keep costs of their bills under $1 million if they expect them to pass.

''They know the deal. You can't be running these fiscal notes up too high,'' Kelly said.

Marti Greeson of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said the organization recognizes changes had to be made to reduce the bill's costs and still supports it. But she also told the Finance Committee it could help pay the costs through raising alcohol taxes.

''It is a perfect match and a perfect time to look at that as one of the ways to bring in some of the income that's needed,'' Greeson said.

The Senate Finance Committee has approved a bill raising excise taxes on alcohol by about a dime a drink, but the measure has not yet come to the full Senate for a vote. A similar effort in the House has stalled in the Finance Committee there.

Rokeberg trimmed about $1 million from his bill's costs by taking out provisions that would have increased sentences for all but first-time misdemeanor DWI offenses.

The newest version imposes a seven-year minimum sentence for killing someone in a drunken-driving accident, but leaves other sentences unchanged.

The initial bill also mandated alcohol treatment while in prison. Eliminating that requirement saves $605,000.

Rokeberg had also wanted to require that vehicles used in a DWI be confiscated and vehicle registration be revoked. The trimmed-down version requires forfeiture only for felony DWIs, which saves about $1.8 million, according to Rokeberg's staff. A DWI becomes a felony is it's a third offense since 1996.

Rokeberg contends that the administration's cost estimate for vehicle forfeiture was inflated, but he could not convince administration officials to reduce that estimate.

He also could not convince the administration to count any projected increase in revenue from raising fines because of uncertainty about collection rates.

Administration officials had not yet produced an analysis Tuesday of what the newest version of the bill would cost, but Rokeberg said he's brought the price tag down to about $38,000.

Rokeberg said the bill still makes useful changes, including:

- Mandating forfeiture throughout the state of vehicles used in felony DWIs and canceling vehicle registration after felony DWIs.

- Increasing fines for all DWIs and for refusing to take a breath test.

- Allowing judges to reduce sentences and fines for offenders who successfully complete a therapeutic court program.

- Increasing fees for obtaining a driver's license after a DWI offender becomes eligible for a license again.

- Allowing municipalities to pass laws to seize vehicles of people driving with a suspended license or driving without insurance.

The Senate Finance Committee will take up the bill again later this week or early next week.

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