Gov Herbert will sign controversial DUI bill, then call special session this summer

Gov. Gary Herbert will sign a controversial DUI bill and then call a special legislative session this summer to revisit drunk driving and road safety, he told his monthly KUED Channel 7 news conference Thursday morning.

HB155 by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, passed the Utah House and Senate last month. It lowers the blood alcohol level from .08 percent – the national standard – to .05 percent, which would be the lowest among the states for a straight DUI offense.

HB155 as amended won’t take effect for 18 months.

And Herbert said he has agreed with GOP legislative leaders that lawmakers will study the issue for several months this spring and summer and Herbert will call a special session – likely in August – to revisit the new law.

Herbert was lobbied for and against the bill he said.

Certainly local restaurant and tourism officials asked Herbert to veto HB155, saying it would harm tourism and conventioneering.

Several national groups have taken out anti-HB155 ads, even one Thursday in USA Today and local newspapers.

Herbert is a faithful member of the LDS Church, as are more than 80 percent of state legislators, Republicans and Democrats, and around two-thirds of Utahns.

LDS leaders preach abstinence from alcohol as a key part of being a faithful Mormon.

Asked by UtahPolicy if in reality HB155 is less of a safety issue and more about Utah’s dominant religion, Herbert strongly denied it.

Some may argue that, but “it would be false,” said Herbert.

“This is not a religious issue. It is a public safety issue,” said the governor.

“There aren’t many Mormons in Rome,” noted Herbert.

Yet in Italy the DUI level is .05. In fact, he said, 85 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a .05 DUI blood alcohol level or lower.

Still, Utah would be first among the 50 states to have a straight DUI level of .05.

Herbert noted that Colorado has two DUI levels.

For having a blood alcohol level of .05 to .08 percent there is one penalty and legal process in our neighboring state. Above .08 percent there’s stricter DUI penalties.

Utah should study that state’s DUI laws. And it may well be appropriate, Herbert said, for Utah to have a lower penalty from .05 to .08, and then a higher penalty above .08 percent.

Also, said Herbert, Utah needs to do a better job capturing, penalizing and treating repeat DUI offenders – even though today Utah has the lowest percent of DUI offenses in the nation.

This is not the first time Herbert has sought a special session to fix a controversial bill passed by the conservative Legislature.

Several years ago lawmakers passed a rewrite of the GRAMA open meetings/records act.

A hue and cry arose, especially among the media.

Herbert asked lawmakers to take the bill back and kill it, and then a special session was held later that year to deal with some of the GRAMA concerns.

And Herbert routinely agrees to work with the majority legislators on bills that he vetoes – often calling a special session later in the year to rework the issues.

But in this case Herbert will not veto HB155.

After a lengthy explanation to reporters about the process he has gone through in analyzing the .08 percent to .05 percent data, he said he will sign the bill.

Thus, if a promised special session doesn’t change the law, Utah will be the first state in the nation to go to the .05 DUI level.

HB155 passed 48-26 in the House; 17-12 in the Senate. It takes two-thirds to override a gubernatorial veto, so 50 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate.

But Herbert clearly wasn’t going to play chicken with legislative Republicans on this issue – hoping they would not override his veto.

For a veto may be seen as a slap in the face to a number of Utah Mormons – who over the years have shown little tolerance to DUI offenders.

In fact, in the Mormon community a DUI ticket is a serious crime, bordering on moral turpitude.

 Several years ago a presumed faithful Mormon who was then the Utah Senate Majority Leader got a DUI. He had to resign his seat and leave politics.

And over the years any number of local government leaders have seen their political careers end with DUI arrests – an infraction seen as much less politically deadly in other parts of America.

Herbert said some may claim a .05 DUI law in Utah would harm tourism or the perception that you can’t get a drink here – or that Utah has weird liquor laws.

But nothing could be further from the truth, he added. Utah welcomes tourists from around the world, and is a warm and friendly place.

However, Herbert said his main job – and that of any government – is to keep its citizens safe.

You would think, said Herbert – and in fact perhaps Utah should better advertise – that Utah visitors will be welcomed to a safe and beautiful place.

Utah has one of the lowest street crime rates in the U.S., he added.

And who wouldn’t want that safety to apply to driving, as well, he asked.

As part of an overall review of safe driving laws, he added, lawmakers and his administration will take fresh looks at texting while driving (already illegal here), talking on cell phones while driving (you can talk if you aren’t working the keyboard), or any other distracted driving issues in preparation for a thorough special session this summer.