MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota lawmakers who haven't had much luck persuading their colleagues to lower the state's legal blood-alcohol limit might have the carrot they need this year: the looming budget deficit.
By agreeing to lower the limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, the state would get as much as $25 million a year from the federal government to pay for transportation projects. That might not have seemed like much -- it's a small slice of the state's two-year, $27 billion budget -- until the projected deficit for the next two years ballooned to $4.56 billion.
Now, lawmakers who have opposed the plan may be forced to think twice.
"I think its time has come," said Sen. Leo Foley, a DFLer from Coon Rapids and the lead sponsor of the bill. "Twenty-five million dollars in the highway and transit area would be a lot of money."
Said Bruce Bechtold, chief sheriff's deputy in Stearns County: "I just think legislators are getting a little more pressure on this and getting a little more educated on what the different levels (of intoxication) mean."
The debate has created some unusual alliances among the groups taking sides on the legislation.
County and city officials are wary of the idea because they think it will increase the amount of money local governments need for DUI prosecutions and housing inmates in their jails. Their skittishness aligns them with bars and restaurants that adamantly oppose lowering the limit, and in many cases against their own police chiefs and sheriffs, who believe lowering the limit is proper.
"Counties are kind of in a quandary," said Jim Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. His group, in its legislative priority list, said it would support a bill to lower the blood-alcohol threshold "if it includes state funding for increased costs at the local level."
Of the counties' position, he added: "They also care about the state losing federal funding. But as we have this debate, we want to make sure that how we pay for it is part of the discussion."
Anne Finn, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said: "We are more for it than against it because our elected officials feel it is good public policy. But we're concerned about costs, and we don't want to end up with an unfunded mandate."
It's not clear whether the state would deliver the money local governments believe they need, or whether any federal money the state gains would be sent to local governments.
The dynamics in the Legislature have changed enough to give the bill's backers hope.
In the past, the leaders of both chambers opposed the idea: Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum and DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. This year, a supporter of the lower limit, DFL Sen. John Hottinger, has replaced Moe as majority leader; Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he supports the plan as well.
One firm opponent, Rep. Phil Krinkie, said he doubts he will change his mind. He fears it will cost more, and he's not convinced it will keep any more drunk drivers off the road.
"I'm one of those people who still adheres to the concept of state's rights, and I don't really appreciate our federal elected officials trying to bribe us," said Krinkie, a Republican from Shoreview.
Neither Foley nor a Republican backer of the bill, Sen. Dave Knutson of Burnsville, are convinced that it would cost counties and cities a lot more to abide by a lower limit.
"Every time you bring something up around here, everybody hollers that it will have unintended consequences," said Foley, a former state trooper who pulled over hundreds of drunk drivers. "We want to make sure we don't maltreat (counties and cities), but I'm not sure that this is as big of a problem as they outline."
Willmar Police Chief Jim Kulset, like Bechtold, said public safety should outweigh the extra costs to prosecute or jail drunk drivers. The men note that several other states, 33 in all, have lowered their blood-alcohol limits.
"I believe it will (cost more), but what's the price of public safety?" Kulset asked. "Your family or my family or a neighbor getting wiped out on the highway by a drunk driver?"
The federal government has offered states financial incentives for lowering their blood-alcohol limits since 1998. Since then, Minnesota has missed out on more than $14 million. The amount would increase every year Minnesota doesn't decrease its threshold, starting at about $6 million in fiscal year 2004 and rising to $24.4 million for 2007 and thereafter.
Any withheld funds, however, ultimately would be given to the state if the threshold is lowered before 2007.
Transportation officials point to a slew of projects where the money would come in handy, such as the reconstructions of Crosstown Highway 62 and Highway 610 in the Twin Cities region, and construction of a Highway 22 bypass around Glencoe and a Highway 23 reconstruction project from Willmar to New London in rural Minnesota.
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