Tennessee lawmakers convene to fix DUI law; could expel Jeremy Durham

Sept. 12, 2016: Lawmakers reconvened in Nashville Monday for the start of a special session to save $60 million in federal highway funds.

When state lawmakers return to Nashville on Monday to reconvene for a special legislative session  they will be be faced with a primary task of undoing their own work.

Gov. Bill Haslam called the legislature back into session after federal authorities informed officials that changes it made to the state's DUI laws during the 2016 regular session were not compliant with federal requirements.

To bolster the penalties for those found drinking and driving while under the legal age, state lawmakers changed the law but eliminated a certain provision that ended up making the allowable blood-alcohol level 0.08. The sponsors of the bill sought to add stiffer penalties for underage drinkers.

But federal authorities said the state’s law is not in compliance with a federal zero tolerance law, which requires states to set 0.02 as the allowable blood-alcohol level for drivers under 21.

Unless the legislature fixed the error by Oct. 1, the feds said the state would lose 8 percent, or $60 million, of what it typically receives in federal highway funds.

Prior to Haslam calling the special session, state officials tried to tell federal authorities they could fix the issue in January, but the feds didn't budge. Thus the need for Tennessee's 59th special or extraordinary session, which is the second in two years.

The legislative fix that lawmakers are expected to introduce during this week's session will largely undo the changes they made to the DUI law by returning the 0.02 percent rule and less strict penalties for drivers below the legal drinking age.

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greenville, said this year's special session is a reminder of the need to pass a bill he introduced earlier this year that would allow lawmakers to reconvene in the fall.

"Every summer invariably there have been issues that the legislature could and should address," he said.

Hawk's legislation would have allowed lawmakers to return to Nashville in the fall of every even-numbered year.

While Hawk said he would not use this year's special session as a selling point for his bill, he pointed to another issue that arose in his county over the summer as justification.

"In Greene County we had a county fair which three young girls fell from a Ferris wheel," he said. "My constituency, in order for me to better address that, would have liked for us to been in legislative session to at least take a closer look at the current law and possibly tweak that law."

Tennessee law lets out-of-state safety certifications and third-party inspectors hired by ride operators determine if amusement rides are safe. The state does not require an inspection to affirm that such equipment has been assembled properly when it moves locations.

Although Hawk's legislation didn't gain much traction in the legislature earlier this year, he's hoping it will have a different outcome next year, when he plans to re-introduce the measure. He said intends to change the legislation to require annual fall sessions in order to provide lawmakers the opportunity to address any issues that arise in the months after the spring session ends.

The transportation funding snafu will likely be overshadowed by the prospect of expelling embattled Rep. Jeremy Durham, who has been the subject of investigations by The Tennesseanstate attorney generalcampaign finance officials and more recently the U.S. Attorney.

In his report on Durham, Attorney General Herbert Slatery found 22 women who accused the Franklin lawmaker of inappropriate sexual conduct.

While some in House leadership were also pushing to expel Rep. Joe Armstrong from the chamber, that issue became moot on Friday when the Knoxville Democrat resigned from his seat. Last month, Armstrong was convicted of filing a false income tax return. His resignation takes effect Monday.

It is unclear whether Durham will attend the special session. Last week he said he would be there if he is given the chance to present his own evidence and face his accusers.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said Durham had his chance, pointing to the attorney general's report which said Durham declined to be interviewed during his probe.

Any effort to expel Durham, who would be only the second Tennessee lawmaker to be ousted since the Civil War, is expected occur either Tuesday or Wednesday.

Even though some lawmakers are not expected to attend the special session, Cade Cothren, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said it would only take two-thirds of those present to oust Durham.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

This story originally appeared on The Tennessean’s website.


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