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In Melanie’s Bill hubbub, federal cash may be lost
Without treatment requirement for drunken drivers, no money
While rushing to pass drunken driving legislation before some lawmakers embarked on an overseas vacation last week, a non-controversial provision was left out that could wind up costing the state access to millions of dollars in federal funds for highway construction.
One legislator said today that correcting the omission might give lawmakers a second chance to strengthen the law.
Gov. Mitt Romney, who has pledged to beef up penalties for repeat offenders, “is going to send this bill back with amendments,” Rep. Frank M. Hynes, D-Marshfield, said. The prospect of losing federal money “will add great emphasis to considering all of (Romney’s amendments),” Hynes said.
Lawmakers last Thursday passed a weakened version of Melanie’s Bill, legislation named for a 13-year-old Marshfield girl killed by a drunken driver in 2003.
But the final version, ironed out in a harried House-Senate conference committee, excluded a provision that would have required mandatory alcohol abuse assessment and treatment for repeat offenders.
Apparently the paragraph was left out as the committee rushed to finish the bill before several legislators had to catch a plane for a 10-day vacation in Spain and Portugal.
Because that paragraph was omitted, the bill in its current form does not satisfy the federal standard for minimum penalties for repeat drunken drivers.
Unless the alcohol assessment and treatment component is put back into the bill by Romney, the state will lose access to about $7.5 million in federal funding for bridge and road repairs.
“The current language is not in compliance with federal requirements,” said Philip Weiser, the regional director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s New England region. “We don’t know why that was taken out.”
Technically, Massachusetts doesn’t lose the federal funds. Instead, the cash must be diverted to the Governor’s Highway Safety Bureau, which in turn uses it for anti-drunken driving advertising campaigns, such as the “You Drink and Drive, You Lose” promotion.
The money can also be used for “hazard elimination,” such as putting gates and lights at railroad crossings, said Stan Gee, an administrator for the Federal Highway Administration who handles Massachusetts’ federal highway programs.
“But it can’t be used to rebuild a bridge,” he said.
During the past five years, Massachusetts has lost access to about $30.2 million in federal funds because of lax drunken driving laws.
The state lost another $7.5 million for the fiscal year that just began, Weiser said.
A Romney spokesman said the governor is considering a number of amendments that would strengthen the bill and meet those federal standards.
“We haven’t received the official word from NHTSA, but we take their concerns seriously,” said Laura Nicoll.
Dan DeLeo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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