Lawmakers send repeal of potential $60 million DUI law screw up to Haslam

FILE- In this July 29, 2015, photo, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, center, questions witnesses during a Texas Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on Planned Parenthood videos covertly recorded that target the abortion provider in Austin, Texas. Texas is one of a number of GOP-controlled states that have launched investigations after the release of videos in which Planned Parenthood officials discuss how to harvest tissue for research from aborted fetuses.(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

NASHVILLE - Sullen Tennessee lawmakers this morning voted to repeal their DUI law screw up which forced them into a special session to fix after U.S. transportation officials said it put the state out of compliance with policy and endangered $60 million in federal highway funding.

Senators repealed the law on a 31 to 1 vote. Representatives later passed the repeal bill on an 85-0 vote, sending it on to Gov. Bill Haslam.

Haslam had called the General Assembly into special session this week to fix the problem. The General Assembly later adjourned.

Tennessee's problems began with a law passed in April that sought to crack down on 18-, 19- and 20-year-old drivers who drive under the influence.

But the Federal Highway Transportation Administration said the new state law put Tennessee out of compliance with their "zero tolerance" requirement and makes the state ineligible for about 8 percent, or $60 million, in federal highway funding.

Under federal rules, the maximum allowable blood-alcohol content for drivers under 21 is 0.02 percent.

The Tennessee law raised that limit to 0.08 percent BAC for 18- to 20-year-olds. But it added tougher penalties for those violators, subjecting them to the same 48-hour jail sentences as those 21 and over. The 0.02 standard remained in place for drivers under age 17. The legal drinking age is 21.

Haslam tried to argue with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and other federal officials that the state's combined DUI laws still effectively created a "zero tolerance" policy. And the state asked the feds to at least let them come back and address the problem in January during the General Assembly's regular session.

But the federal government wouldn't budget.

When a bill for the three-day special session's expenses - estimated at about $100,000 - came up for a vote, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said state lawmakers should bill the federal government instead.

That prompted yet more discussion as Republicans denounced the federal government and spending as well as noting Tennesseans sends more to the federal government in gas tax money than they get back.

But Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville pointed out while Tennessee gets less from Uncle Sam than what its residents pay in fuel taxes, the federal government is very generous to Tennessee government by providing more than one third and as much as 40 percent of the state's budget.

In the House debate, Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, charged the federal government with "blackmail" by threatening to withhold the $60 million.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, pointed out that Tennessee lawmakers and officials simply goofed and didn't catch the problem they were creating.

"You can talk about blackmail but we just messed up," Fitzhugh said. "That's it."