NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says he's open to trying to address concerns raised by Tennessee's district attorneys general that a funding provision in the governor's IMPROVE Act for roads will cost them $6.5 million in federal dollars now used for special DUI prosecutors and training and police overtime.
Haslam acknowledged the concern last week. The money is part of an estimated $18 million Tennessee can't now use for highways and bridges because the state lacks an "Open Container Law" barring open alcoholic beverages in vehicles.
"We're aware of that," the governor said last week. "We fund some DUI [enforcement], DAs through that. We're willing to look at other ways to make sure that function gets paid for. We realize that's critical."
In Tennessee, drivers can't consume alcohol while driving, but passengers can. That puts the state out of compliance with federal rules, so it must spend that $18 million in areas related to highway safety, including prosecutions, DUI roadblocks, associated police overtime and public advertising campaigns to deter intoxicated drivers.
Efforts over at least 20 years to enact an open container law have failed in the General Assembly.
But now Haslam wants to use the $18 million for highway construction and improvements as part of his $296.57 million plan to tackle an estimated $10.5 billion backlog of highway, road and bridge projects.
The remaining $278.5 million would come from planned fuel tax increases of 7 cents per gallon for gasoline and 12 cents for diesel.
The Republican governor's plan already is facing pushback, especially in the GOP-controlled House. Now prosecutors' concerns mean a potential political fight on a different front.
Jerry Estes, former 10th Judicial District attorney general and now executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, recently said DAs in 25 of the state's 31 judicial districts rely on the funding. He said prosecutors are hoping to work something out.
"Our concern is 57 positions that would be lost if they're not funded another way," Estes said. "And what those 57 positions do, they're very involved, of course, in prosecuting DUIs and vehicular homicides."
Moreover, Estes said, the money also helps train sheriffs, police departments, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other enforcement agencies to combat DUI and impaired driving.
"Tennessee's DUI deaths on the highways have gone down greatly since these programs have been in place," said Estes, who called them "very crucial" to that success.
Without the money, "we're going to be hurting," Estates said. "That will be a huge lick in our budget. And I would say this, we're very encouraged and appreciative of the open mind" on Haslam's part.
Among concerned prosecutors is Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston.
"We have one prosecutor and two support staff (one secretary and one coordinator) funded by the grant," Pinkston spokeswoman Melydia Clewell said in an email. "The extra support staffers are needed primarily to handle the extensive record keeping required under the provisions of the DUI grant."
Clewell said it "doesn't matter" to her boss "which state budget category is used for funding the program, he's leaving that up to the politicians. His only concern is making sure our DUI unit stays intact."
She noted that under state law, Hamilton County can't pay for a DUI prosecutor without also providing another 75 percent of a prosecutor's salary to the public defender's office.
"So it's extremely important to us that the state continue to fund this position," Clewell said.
Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, a former prosecutor, said the $18 million, including the $6.5 million that now goes to prosecutors, needs to be replaced.
"If we can take $18 million out of the general fund and allocate that towards safety, specifically toward 57 positions in the district attorneys' offices, officer overtime, roadblocks and advertising to combat intoxicated driving, I think that's a great solution," Lamberth said.
Haslam said "not having the open container law has meant that the federal government's telling us how we can spend that $18 million."
"I think we should choose how we spend that and then to decide do we want to fund DUI, DAs another way," the governor said. "But in the meantime, money that should be going to roads should be going to roads."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.