Conference committee refuses to talk DUI bill until funded

TOPEKA — As the end of the session nears, legislators who back a bill to stiffen penalties for drunken drivers are throwing out words such as “petty” and “ridiculous” to describe the actions of colleagues they say are wrapped up in procedure and not what is important.

At issue is a matter of protocol that could sink a bill some say would help prevent drunken driving accidents such as one that killed a 4-year-old Wichita girl and her mother in 2008.

Senate Bill 6 would toughen penalties for DUIs and create a central repository to track offenders, among other things.

Here’s the hiccup: The House agreed to put $2 million in its budget to pay for community corrections for DUI offenders. But House budget negotiators accepted the Senate’s position not to fund the money, explained Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood.

The House negotiators now are willing to consider the funding, Colloton said. But their leadership thinks the Senate should bring up the issue again. The Senate, meanwhile, says that if the House wants to reverse itself, representatives need to raise their hands.

“For this bill to fail for that kind of petty protocol would be a travesty for public safety,” Colloton said.

Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, is chair of the state’s DUI commission, which suggested the tougher restrictions.

On Wednesday morning, he refused to have a judiciary and corrections conference committee talk more about the bill until House and Senate budget negotiators find a way to talk about the money for community corrections.

Owens said both sides were unwilling to discuss Senate Bill 6, “which I will say publicly is an abomination.”

“I do not understand the reticence of both sides,” said Owens, who is also chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

Colloton agreed, saying, “Nobody will just say, ‘Hey, should we address this?’ But nobody will, and that is really pathetic.”

Rep. Marc Rhoades, chair of the House budget committee, said it was the Senate’s position not to fund the $2æmillion.

“They’re going to have to come back and say, ‘We need that money,’ ” Rhodes said. “It’s not petty.”

Efforts to reach Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chair of the Senate budget committee, were unsuccessful.

Later Wednesday, Colloton said she thought she had found someone on the budget conference committee willing to address the funding.

But if that doesn’t happen, Colloton hopes to push the community corrections issue into another piece of legislation so that hurdle doesn’t stall the idea of the central repository.

“We should rescue all the good parts of it,” Colloton said of the bill, which also would require first-time offenders to use an interlock device in their vehicle. Interlocks are devices that test a driver’s alcohol level. If the driver fails to blow a clean test, his or her car won’t start.

Supporters of tougher DUI restrictions have struggled all session to find funding for the changes in a tight budget year.

Funding for the central repository also was in doubt until recently, when the Kansas Department of Transportation moved money around in its checkbook to find $2.5 million to fund it in partnership with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

The state’s DUI commission was formed after a drunken driver crashed into Claudia Mijares and her daughter, Gisele, as they were walking across the street to school in 2008.

Prosecutors charged the driver with his fifth DUI after the accident, state and county records show. But because of gaps in reporting, the state driver’s license database showed only two of those convictions. That led to questions about how meaningful the state’s DUI laws can be if law enforcement, prosecutors and judges don’t know how many times a driver has gotten behind the wheel while under the influence.

The repository, which would be overseen by the KBI, would more quickly provide information to prosecutors about a driver’s history to make sure he or she is charged with the correct offense.