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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/24/16. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting on Wednesday, August 24, 2016.

NASHVILLE — A legal clock continued ticking this week as Haslam administration officials worked to avert an expected loss of $60 million in U.S. transportation funds because of Tennessee's new get-tough DUI law aimed at underage drinkers.

The state law, approved by state lawmakers this spring, instead has crashed headlong into federal requirements.

And unless something can be worked out — or the state law is repealed — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says Tennessee will lose 8 percent of its federal road funding, or $60 million, if the state is found to be in noncompliance on Oct. 1.

"Discussions with the feds are continuing this week," said Jennifer Donnals, Gov. Bill Haslam's press secretary, "and the state is continuing to pursue every alternative with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."

Haslam is hoping to avoid having to call the General Assembly back to the state Capitol for a special session to repeal the law. But the governor was quoted last week by The Associated Press as saying that may be unavoidable because the $60 million is "too big of a chunk of change to lose."

The special session would come in the midst of the general election.

Lawmakers who pushed the bill say they didn't realize the change would make Tennessee the only state to be in violation of federal zero-tolerance standards.

Under federal rules, the maximum allowable blood-alcohol content for drivers under 21 is 0.02 percent. The new Tennessee law raised that limit to 0.08 percent for 18- to 20-year-olds. But it added tougher penalties for the violators. The 0.02 standard remained in place for drivers through age 17. The legal drinking age is 21.

Tennessee's big problem only came to light publicly on Aug. 19 after U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., openly raised concerns.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials told the state a decision would be made by the end of last week, but that didn't happen.

Instead, Haslam and Attorney General Herbert Slatery last week asked for a federal waiver to keep the funding on track. Slatery sought to make the legal argument that other Tennessee laws dealing with underage drinking collectively matched federal requirements.

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And Tennessee's two U.S. senators and nine congressmen sent a letter to federal transportation officials urging them to work things out.

B.J. Doughty, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said Monday that "nothing has developed since the letter. We may hear something this week."

In an earlier joint statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration said that "about one-third of the fatalities on U.S. roads are related to drunk driving, and many of these fatalities involve young drivers."

"Until now, Tennessee had consistently complied with federal laws that require states to limit blood alcohol content (BAC) to under 0.02 percent for drivers under the age of 21. The new law raising the allowable BAC for 18- to 20-year-old drivers above the federal limit makes the roads more dangerous for everyone and does not comply with the federal zero tolerance law."

The agencies said "if Tennessee is determined to be out of compliance on October 1, 2016, the state will forfeit approximately $60 million in Federal highway funds."

During this year's legislative session, state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the law to provide tougher penalties for persons 18 to 20 years old who are convicted of drunk driving.

Under the old law, anyone from age 16 to 20 with a blood alcohol content of 0.02 would be guilty of driving while intoxicated. The punishment was a one-year suspension of their driver's license suspension plus a $250 fine.

The new law raises the blood alcohol content requirement to 0.08 for 18- to 20- year-olds. And offenders now get slapped with the same penalties given to those 21 and older who are convicted of DUI. That includes a mandatory 48 hours in jail, a fine of up to $1,500 and a one-year driver's license suspension.

In his letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Slatery acknowledged Tennessee's new law doesn't meet federal requirements. But he argued Tennessee's "zero-tolerance" laws combined to achieve the same goal. Under state law, no one under the age of 21 can legally possess or consume any amount of alcohol.

"Accordingly," Slatery wrote in his letter, "Tennessee meets the requirements of [the federal statute], and is committed to imposing its zero tolerance laws."

The new law passed the House on a 91-2 vote and by a 30-0 margin in the Senate. Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottonwood, a former assistant prosecutor and the House bill's primary sponsor, told The Associated Press he and others had no idea the law would jeopardize federal transportation funding.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Sparta, and Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, were the only two House members to vote against the bill.

"While I agreed with toughening penalties for younger drivers," Dunlap said, "I had to ask: why loosen the liquor intoxication level for minors? Lowering that standard just didn't make sense to me."

Dunlap, who has a Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, said he's ready to do what's necessary to keep federal funding in place.

"We cannot stand to lose $60 million for our state," Dunlap said in a news release. "If it means coming back for a special session in order to keep our federal tax dollars coming back to Tennessee for our roads and highways to do that, I'm ready to do that."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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