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DUI bill that caused political furor over process is now dead

Posted: 3:20 PM, Apr 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-16 17:10:57-04

HELENA — The anti-DUI measure that sparked a political furor Saturday, when it was revived by cramming it into another bill, is now dead after the bill’s sponsor decided to pull the measure from the Senate floor.

“I think a lot of legislators thought that the process was being circumvented, and I didn’t care to have it keep going,” Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, told MTN News on Tuesday.

Still, Regier said he’s disappointed the bill died because he felt it would have gone a long way to help combat drunken-driving in Montana.

“I’m disappointed for the people of Montana because it is a serious problem in this state,” he said. “When one to two people die every week because of impaired drivers, that’s serious.”

The proposal, crafted originally by Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, would have taken a number of steps to attempt to reduce drunken driving, including the use of blood draws from first-time drunken-driving suspects.

Supporters argued that a blood sample would make it more difficult for first-time suspects to beat the charge — and that the first-time offender, if convicted, is more likely to get into treatment or take other steps that will prevent them from becoming multiple offenders.

“Without that hard evidence, it’s hard to get a conviction,” Regier said.

In an interview Tuesday, Fox told MTN News that he, too, is disappointed that the bill didn’t pass — but said he plans to keep working on the issue.

“We’ve been able to raise the dialog and the discussion in our state, during my tenure as attorney general, to get people to know and understand that we have a very unfortunate, if not critical bias, that people think you can drink and drive under the influence,” he said. “Montana, unfortunately, is a state that leads the nation in the number of DUI deaths and DUI, in general, per capita.”

Other elements of the bill included increasing fines for serial DUI offenders and making it harder for DUI offenders to get those offenses removed from their record.

Regier’s Senate Bill 65, which contained the original proposals, passed the Senate but was killed last Friday by the House Judiciary Committee, with both Republicans and Democrats voting against it.

However, late that same evening, Regier and others decided to take parts of the bill and place them in a lengthy amendment that would be offered to another bill Saturday morning, in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

The committee voted Saturday morning to place the DUI language into House Bill 685, a one-page “companion bill” that had a broad title and had been sitting in committee with virtually no content.

But Democrats on the committee and some lobbyists who had worked on the DUI bill strongly objected, saying the 81-page amendment had not had a hearing and was inserted with little or no public comment.

This new, amended version of HB685 had been headed to the Senate floor on Monday, but Regier said he asked Senate leadership to pull it, essentially killing the measure.

Fox, who’s running for governor in 2020, said before he leaves office as attorney general next year, he’ll be submitting his final proposals to the 2021 Legislature — and that he will “guarantee” that one of them will be addressing drunken-driving.

Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News