Lawmakers say they’re in no hurry to ‘fix’ .05% DUI law

When the controversial 0.05 percent DUI bill passed the end of the 2017 Legislature, Gov. Gary Herbert signed it into law saying he’d call a summer special session – perhaps in July – to revisit the whole issue of drinking and driving in Utah.

Well, the July legislative interim day will pass next week without such a special session.

And now House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, tells UtahPolicy that there may not even be a special session on the 0.05 percent bill this year – the matter will just be dealt with in the January-March 2018 general session.

Herbert now tells UtahPolicy that he, too, doesn’t see the need for a special session on the DUI bill.

“Many of the issues related to HB155 may very well be best handled in the general session,” Paul Edwards, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff for communications, told UtahPolicy on Monday.

Waiting until the general session will also give time for some now-unhappy lawmakers to cool off a bit after a national alcohol-sellers association public campaign that hit Utah newspapers last week showing Herbert and post-65-year-old lawmakers with the headline that older folks have more vehicle accidents than those with a 0.05 percent blood alcohol levels – so why doesn’t Utah just outlaw senior drivers.

That ad, and others that have run in surrounding states against the new law, has the effect of entrenching legislators who favor the bill, which makes it harder – not easier – to deal with the subject in a calm, reasonable manner, Hughes told UtahPolicy.

Hughes voted against Rep. Norm Thurston’s HB155 – which is a rather simple bill that just changes the alcohol blood level for a DUI from 0.08 percent (the standard in most states) to 0.05 percent.

Utah is the first state in the union to go from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent for a standard DUI violation, although Colorado has a 0.05 percent level for a non-DUI ticket, just a traffic violation.

Critics claim a drinker could have just a glass of wine, or a mixed drink, and depending on other health factors could test positive at 0.05 percent.

Have a drink, go to jail, as one anti-HB155 ad says.

In signing the bill, Herbert said he hoped the Legislature would study the issue quickly, and that a summer special session could be called. Only the governor can call the Legislature into a special session, and only the governor sets the formal agenda.

Herbert later said a July special session was possible – but Monday he clearly moved away from that possibility.

Hughes and Senate sources tell UtahPolicy that such a deadline may have been the governor’s plan, but it was never the GOP legislative leadership’s plan.

The interim Transportation Committee has held several hearings already on HB155 – but no final decision has been made by the committee.

“The bill is getting a good vetting in Transportation,” said Hughes. But there is no consensus yet, and there may not be, he added.

On the political side, leaders of The LDS Church have publicly come out in favor of HB155, with the church-owned Deseret News endorsing the change editorially. The paper also declined to run the anti-HB155 ad.

But there is an interesting tale on that subject:

— Various sources say that Thurston never asked the church to endorse his bill – and the Provo-based legislator confirms that.

However, starting back in 2009 when Hughes sponsored a broad-ranging alcohol reform bill, a precedent was set that when lawmakers (80 percent of whom are active Mormons) wish to liberalize Utah’s often-seen-as-odd liquor laws, they enhance some public safety alcohol measures as a trade-off with LDS leaders.

That was not done per se in the 2017 Legislature – at least not at first.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, ran a broad-ranging alcohol reform bill that did away with the so-called Zion Curtain, a 7-foot opaque wall that screens restaurant customers from the dispensing of alcohol (much made fun of in the media) that was part of the 2009 liquor-by-the-drink reform law.

If lawmakers were repealing the church-approved Zion Curtain in 2017, what were the Mormon leaders getting in return?

Suddenly, Thurston’s HB155 was seen by many as that counter-measure – the LDS Church-approved quid pro quo. Even if it wasn’t.

Hughes says he didn’t expect HB155 to make it out of the House. “I joked with Norm, “Good luck with that,” when he first came to talk to me about the 0.05 percent level,” said Hughes.

But pass the bill did, 48-26.

“I don’t believe the church had an opinion on it then,” recalls Hughes.

It was when the bill hit the Senate that Mormon leaders decided to back it, UtahPolicy is told, with their lobbyists weighing in.

That sealed the bill’s fate in the Senate – it passed on the final day of the session — and brought along Herbert’s signing of the bill, and promise of a summer special session to address the issue further.

It’s a tradition in the final days of each session that Senate GOP leaders send the House a list of Senate-sponsored bills the leaders want to be voted on in the House, and vice a versa.

“I watch our lists going to the Senate very carefully, “ said Hughes. “And never did we (in House GOP leadership) ask for the Senate to vote on Norm’s bill. HB155 was not on any of our lists. But (GOP Senate leadership) took it upon themselves to lift it from their Senate Rules Committee and vote on it.”

“I made it known that I hated that bill,” said Hughes. “But we also decided” in House leadership “not to try to stop it.”

Senate GOP leaders made sure HB155 was not amended in the Senate – which would have required that it goes back to the House for re-approval – and it would have died there.

Three out of four House GOP leaders voted against HB155.

Now, says Hughes, he’s in no hurry to have a special session on HB155 this year, since the bill doesn’t take effect until Dec. 30, 2018.

That gives the 45-day 2018 general session, or even a special session next year, the chance to modify it.

And it gives time for anti-HB155 groups from inside and outside of Utah to back off, and not push legislators to take offense, and thus support the 0.05 percent DUI law.