Give up $58 million a year, or get rid of a law they passed last year.
That’s the choice that faces West Virginia legislators, after state officials learned the 2019 law that made it legal to drive under the influence on private roads and property would cost millions in federal highway money.
On Thursday, members of the House Judiciary Committee originated a bill to repeal the 2019 law after state Division of Motor Vehicles Deputy Commissioner Adam Holley reiterated that the law is at odds with the federal Highways Administration’s zero tolerance policy for DUI enforcement.
State officials learned in December that West Virginia would lose $58 million a year of federal highways funding if the law is not repealed, Holley said.
Federal law permits the withholding of up to 14 percent of federal FAST Act highways funding and Surface Transportation Block Grants to states that make exceptions to the federal mandate that defines driving under the influence as having a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher “while operating a motor vehicle” regardless of whether the vehicle is on a public route or not.
The originating bill advanced on a voice vote, but without unanimous support.
“We just learned the price-tag of federalism is $58 million, plain and simple,” complained Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. “Last year, we all got together and passed a good law, and now the federal government is holding money over our heads.”
The 2019 legislation was lawmakers’ response to a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling that determined drunk driving laws are applicable “anywhere in the state,” including on private roads or property.
At the time of its passage, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, described the 2019 legislation as “the right to act stupid on your own property.”
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, joined Steele in opposing the bill, noting that threats of withholding federal highways funding have been used against the state before, including forcing West Virginia to become one of the last states to raise its legal drinking age to 21. Three years earlier, the state had raised the drinking age from 18 to 19 under federal pressure.
Pushkin, who was 16 when the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1986, noted somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “They did the same thing and held up our highways dollars, and I had to wait five more years.”
In 1986, federal highways officials threatened to withhold $5.56 million a year of highways funding until West Virginia raised its drinking age, the equivalent of about $13 million in today’s dollars.