When state lawmakers passed a new drunken driving law for people under the drinking age, they didn't realize that the change would make Tennessee the only state to run afoul of federal zero-tolerance standards.
That oversight could carry a hefty penalty: 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.
That gives Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow Republicans in the state Legislature about five weeks to clean up the mess, even if it means calling a special legislative session the middle of election season to repeal the law altogether.
"It's too big of a chunk of change to lose," Haslam said Wednesday.
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 added tougher penalties for violators. The 0.02 standard remained in place for drivers through age 17.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville was the first to make Tennessee's violation of the zero-tolerance rules public late last week, chiding Republicans for the law that he said "must be a mistake."
Sponsors of the legislation, which passed with near unanimous support and almost no debate, argue that the change was meant to bring penalties for all adults over age 18 into line.
Previously, people between ages 18 and 20 convicted of driving while intoxicated faced the loss of a license for a year and a $250 fine. The conviction could later be expunged and there were no enhanced penalties for repeat offenders.
The new law carries the same penalties as driving under the influence for adults that also include 48 hours in jail, one year of probation and a ban on expunging the crime from the record.
That the changes endangered federal road funding was an "unintended consequence," said Haslam.
"They actually thought they were making it a greater penalty to drink underage," the governor said.
Republican officials argue that unrelated state laws make it illegal for people under the drinking age to possess or consume any alcohol, meaning that underage drivers with even trace amounts of booze on their breath can be charged.
Haslam said he's holding on to hope that a "workaround" will be approved to allow Tennessee lawmakers to wait to address the issue when they return for their regular session in January.
State Transportation Department spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said the federal agency has agreed to consider Tennessee's claims before making a formal decision on the fate of road funding by the end of the week.
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