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