Topeka — An overhaul of Kansas' laws against drunken driving is stalled in the state Senate, where some members have misgivings about requiring ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders and others don't want to increase liquor taxes to cover potential additional costs.
The senator trying to shepherd the bill through the Legislature isn't sure anything will pass this year, even though the measure has been two years in the works. A key House member says lawmakers may have to settle for a less sweeping bill and then tinker with drunken-driving laws again.
The Senate had been scheduled to debate the drunken-driving legislation Wednesday. The measure increases penalties for refusing to take an alcohol test after a traffic stop and for being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs while working as a commercial driver. It creates a central state database of DUI influence cases to make it easier to track offenders' histories.
But Senate leaders abruptly canceled the debate after a caucus of Republican senators, and Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said the measure doesn't have enough support to pass. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican who's pushed for a comprehensive bill, said legislators aren't willing to acknowledge that reforms create costs — or to look for the money.
"Without them willing to pay for it, now it's not going to happen," Owens said. "It's all about money."
The latest round of work on strengthening the state's DUI laws began in 2008, amid public concern about repeat offenders. Legislators formed a commission in 2009 to do a comprehensive review of DUI laws, and its recommendations were ready for legislators this year. Last year, federal statistics showed that alcohol-related traffic fatalities jumped 12 percent in Kansas in 2009, to 154, when they declined by 7 percent nationwide.
Some legislators worry changes in penalties will crowd local jails and increase the state's prison population, and there's heartburn as well about the cost of creating the state DUI case database, estimated at up to $3 million.
One estimate put the cost of the DUI commission's recommendations at more than $9 million. Owens said his committee's revisions cut the potential costs by more than half.
The Senate's legislation would have raised liquor taxes by about $6 million a year — a hard sell.
"It was the elephant in the middle of the room that nobody was talking about," said Sen. Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican. "Everybody knew it was there."
The House overwhelmingly approved a less sweeping bill last week with tougher penalties for both refusing to take a DUI test and following a DUI conviction. Its version includes a requirement that all first-time offenders have their driver's licenses suspended for a month, followed by 11 months with an ignition interlock device on their vehicles. State law now allows a judge to require such a device, which prevents someone from starting a car without first doing a breath-alcohol test, but it's not mandated.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving is pushing for an ignition interlock law, arguing that it will reduce repeat DUI offenses, traffic accidents and fatalities. Nine states require such devices for all first-time DUI offenders, while an additional seven require them for some, based on the offender's age or blood-alcohol level, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"We feel very strongly that even people with suspended licenses continue to drive and are a danger," said Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who is chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. "Next year, we can make it an even more sophisticated bill, but get what we can get this year. It'd be a shame after all this work to just let it go."
The Senate bill doesn't require ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders, but Owens supports the idea and told fellow GOP senators Wednesday that he would offer an amendment to add a provision to the Senate's legislation.
Other senators are wary. Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, said some of his colleagues don't want to take away judges' discretion, and there's concern that installing the devices will result in up to $1,000 in additional fees for offenders.
"There's tremendous opposition," he said.
The Senate could consider the House's legislation, but Owens prefers what he sees as a comprehensive approach.
"It doesn't do hardly anything, except maybe put the interlocks on people," Owens said of the House plan. "We could have done that three years ago."