While he’s backed off plans to call a special legislative session this year to alter Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law, Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday outlined some major changes he would like to see next year.
Those include imposing lighter penalties for those who barely exceed the new 0.05 percent blood alcohol limit for impairment, while continuing existing tougher punishment for those who violate the current 0.08 standard.
Another option, Herbert said, may be to delay the effective date of the law — now set to kick in on Dec. 30, 2018 — until after perhaps two or three other states pass similar legislation.
Herbert aired his preferences on the DUI law during his monthly news conference on KUED-TV. He also announced that he is calling a special legislative session next week — but only to deal with changes in law needed for a permanent street closure as part of Operation Rio Grande to clean up crime in downtown Salt Lake City near the homeless shelter.
When Herbert signed HB155, the DUI law, this year, he said he would likely call a special session of the Legislature in late summer to fix problems with it. He said Thursday he now figures that the Legislature has plenty of time to deal with it in its general session that convenes in January before the law takes effect.
“We’ve had a number of hearings on it. The Legislature is more inclined to address this in a general session. It probably requires a little more robust thinking” than could happen in a one-day special session, Herbert said.
“I think there is a desire to follow the Colorado model,” where that state has lesser penalties for people whose blood alcohol content is between 0.05 and 0.08, the governor said.
“It has appeal to me,” Herbert said. “I have a sense that’s probably the right place to end.”
Some supporters have questioned the legality of a two-tiered system and whether it could threaten federal highway funds, and Herbert said, “That’s probably part of the discussion.” But he adds that Colorado has that system and is still receiving federal funds.
“Another way to approach it, which has come out of the Legislature, is why don’t we wait until two or three other states have 0.05 and we’ll join with them at the same time, so we’re not all alone,” he said.
That could mute some of the criticism Utah is taking, including ads that the American Beverage Institute has been running around the country warning tourists about the law with such tag lines as “Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation.”
Supporters of the bill, meanwhile, point out that more than 100 other countries now have a 0.05 BAC. The National Transportation Safety Board has called for it and says it will save lives — and testified twice for the bill at the Legislature. It says driving impairment begins with one drink.
Herbert said law enforcement officers tell him, “It appears we are having an impact on DUIs where people think it [the new law] has already taken effect” so they are avoiding driving even after light drinking. “We’ll have to look at the data whether that is actually the case.”
He added, “I expect we’ll have a robust, healthy debate in the 2018 session” on the DUI law.
Just as he said extended debate is likely needed on DUI legislation, he said serious scrutiny also is likely needed for funding Operation Rio Grande’s estimated $67 million price tag — which is a reason he says that he is not including that in next week’s special session.
He said state officials have found ways to shift around funds to handle needs until the Legislature meets. “This is probably better addressed in a general session as we go through our budgetary process in a more robust manner.”