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Committee OK's lower legal limit

February 01, 2001
By: Nick White
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB36

JEFFERSON CITY - Drivers under the influence could soon have more to worry about.

The Senate Transportation Committee gave its unanimous approval Wednesday for a bill that would lower Missouri's blood alcohol content legal limit from .1 to .08. Committee members cited safety concerns and a federal grant that would bolster roads funding by millions.

The bill, which has been debated in the state legislature since 1998, now goes to a vote before the Senate, where committee members say the bill will likely pass.

"At least we got it to where it will receive early consideration on the floor of the Senate," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Morris Westfall, R-Halfway. "I'm excited about the opportunity to go out and get it passed. I've been working on it for four or five years, and I think the time has finally come."

States that have adopted the .08 law receive additional federal funding for roads -- Missouri's failure to pass the bill is costing the state $3 million annually in federal aid.

Beginning October 1, 2003, if Missouri does not have a .08 law, it will be forced by federal law to pay $8 million annually in sanctions, a penalty that would be avoided should this legislation pass both the House and Senate.

In 2007, that yearly penalty would jump to $32 million.

"We've lost federal highway funding," said committee member Ted House, D-St. Charles County. "It's past time to get this done."

Representatives from Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest manufacturer of beer, said their position on the .08 issue hasn't changed -- .08 is "a step in the wrong direction."

The company says though it does not support the legislation, it refuses to lobby legislators against a bill that would boost Missouri's transportation funding, which will happen under federal law.

"Instead, we will continue to push for more effective legislation targeted against the hard core," said Mark Boranyak, vice president of state affairs for Anheuser-Busch, in a written statement.

Missouri's Highway Patrol said, in 1998, one of every 25 drunk driving casualties was caused by a driver with a BAC between .08 and .1. This translated to the lost lives of 12 people.

"Every human being is impaired at .08," said Mike Boland, spokesman for the Missouri chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Boland said MADD stronly supports the committee's decision to pass the bill.

"This is the one year that it is a win-win situation," he said, referring to both the safety and federal funding benefits.

The committee acknowledged that parts of the original bill needed some adjustments. One provision of the bill that was omitted, which has now been introduced to the Senate by Westfall as a separate bill, would have forbid passengers from having an open container of alcohol. Currently, only drivers, not passengers, aren't allowed to have open containers.

"I wanted to make .08 as clean as possible and get it passed this year," Westfall said.

House gave a more stark portrayal of the bill's provision. He said should the open container provision passed his committee, it would have been a stumbling block to .08's passage in the Senate.

"It would have killed the bill," House said.

House also said Gov. Bob Holden's emphasis on the .08 legislation in his State of the State address Tuesday was instrumental in the committee's decision to pass the bill. Holden said passing the bill is one of his top priorities for this legislative session.

"Let's make it happen this year," Holden said.