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Montana stand on open containers could be costly

By Ted Monoson
Missoulian D.C. Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For Montana transportation officials a federal highway spending law could be a bit like a trick dribble glass.

Because this state does not have laws prohibiting open containers of alcohol in vehicles, a portion of the money it is scheduled to receive for road construction would be diverted away like the stream of liquid running down the dribble glass user's chin and neck.

A Senate-passed version of the measure, S 1072, would reduce the amount of money that states without open container laws receive. House members are expected to begin work on their version of the bill in the next few weeks. After the differences between the two versions have been reconciled the final product would have to be passed by both legislative bodies and signed by the president to become law.

The Senate version's provision on the open container law proposes a significant shift from "soft sanctions," that shifted the money to other programs, to "hard" sanctions that cost the state's hard cash for failing to toe the federal line.

Under the existing law, states that permit open containers of alcohol in vehicles are required to spend a portion of the road construction money that they receive on safety work and programs to prevent drunken driving.

Under the hard sanctions of the Senate bill, states that do not pass open container laws by fiscal year 2008 would lose 2 percent of the federal highway construction dollars they are scheduled to receive. This approach was championed by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and approved by the full Senate on a voice vote.

Under soft sanctions, in 2003, Montana saw $12 million of its $291 million in federal highway dollars diverted from road construction. The hard sanctions of the Dorgan provision would cost Montana about $8.5 million a year outright.

"It's not like it goes to another program," Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt said. "They lose it."

Montana is among 14 states that does not have open container laws.

Under Montana law, drivers are permitted to have open containers of alcohol. The cities of Bozeman, Billings, Butte and Helena all have laws banning open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

Bill Muhs, past president of Montana Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was pleased to learn about Dorgan's provision in the Senate bill.

"A hard sanction is definitely preferable," Muhs said. "If they don't lose the money, they don't have enough of an incentive to change the law."

Muhs, whose 20-year-old daughter Anne Marie was killed on Aug., 27, 1990, when a drunk driver hit her while she was riding her bicycle in Billings, was surprised to learn that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., opposes sanctions on states without open container laws. Muhs said he has spoken with the senator and his staff about the issue.

"Obviously Max supports making our streets and roads safer, but he doesn't think it is fair for Congress to hold highway dollars hostage," Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said. "Max wants Montana to be able to decide what is best for Montana, and that is why he will work to get these sanctions removed, but it's going to be an uphill battle."

Baucus, as the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, will play a lead role in reconciling the Senate- and House-passed versions of the bill.

"I am very disappointed to hear that," Muhs responded when told of Baucus' position on the issue. "When we spoke with them we found a willingness to listen, but did not get a commitment."

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., shares Baucus' opposition to the sanctions.

"The amendment in the highway bill that withholds a portion of federal highway dollars to states that do not have an open container law is well-intentioned but amounts to federal blackmail," Burns said. "I would rather see the federal government provide resources and incentive to fight the drunk driving problem instead of holding needed funding hostage."

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., took a pass on weighing in on the issue.

"The safety issues in the Highway Bill – including mandatory seat belts and open container restrictions – are the most contentious right now, and the committee has yet to consider, much less resolve, these issues," Rehberg said. "Right now I'm focused on putting together the best possible bill for Montana and helping create as many jobs for our state as we can."

Muhs is frustrated by the attitude of the Montana legislators.

"This is very much the usual drivel we hear about the federal government staying out of state business," Muhs said. "I think they are trying to appeal to that kind of illogical reasoning."