ST. PAUL, Minn. - Legislation to crack down on drunken drivers in Minnesota got approval from two money-minded committees on Wednesday, and bill sponsors feel confident that the proposals will soon pass through both DFL-controlled chambers to a welcoming governor.
The bills would require many of those convicted of drunken driving to install breath-activated ignition devices on their vehicles. The mechanisms test the alcohol level in a person's breath and, if at a certain level, prevent the vehicle from starting.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty sought to require the technology for all convicted offenders instead of losing driving privileges. But similar bills moving through House and Senate committees would go a little easier on first-time offenders, making the device optional for those caught with lower blood-alcohol levels.
Democratic sponsors don't think that will hurt the bills' chances with the governor, who proposed the legislation before the session ramped up.
"It's good public policy," sponsor Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, told the Senate Committee on Finance. "You're guaranteed an offender would have to blow into a tube every time they get into the car and they would have to be stone-cold sober. Period."
The committee approved the bill Wednesday, while the House Ways and Means Committee approved a similar bill. The proposals could get put up to a vote in both chambers as soon as next week.
More than 40 states have some kind of interlock requirement in their law books, with at least half of them putting the penalties on first time offenders and repeat drunken drivers, Murphy said.
"Quite frankly, we are behind in Minnesota on this," he said.
House bill sponsor Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said the change addresses concerns that came up in committees. Some thought requiring the device for first-time drunken drivers was too much, especially for young drivers.
"We want to get people legally driving again, but keep the roads safe and make sure that people are accountable for their driving infractions," she said.
Drivers would pay the average $100 monthly cost to equip and operate the system, while federal funds would offset any other costs to the state's Department of Public Safety, Bigham said.
The ignition device requires people to blow into a tube and prevents them from starting the car if the alcohol level in their breath exceeds 0.02. The legal limit for driving is 0.08.
Drivers with three or more driving while impaired tickets could be forced to keep the locks on their cars for at least three years.
Pawlenty's proposal also lowers the blood-alcohol content threshold at which tougher administrative sanctions kick in to 0.15, including longer license revocation.
The Senate bill lines up with Pawlenty, but the House version sticks with current state law, which states that anyone who registers 0.20 faces tougher penalties.
Bill differences have to be worked out in committees before the legislation can go to Pawlenty.