The fate of drunken driving legislation was unresolved last night as Senate leaders belittled a bill passed by the House and proposed what they said was a much tougher version.
"This is the toughest drunk driving bill in the history of Massachusetts," said Patricia McGovern (D-Lawrence), chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. She said the House version was "technically flawed and constitutionally problematic." Rep. Salvatore DiMasi (D-North End), sponsor of the House bill, said he welcomed the Senate's action in taking up the bill, but disagreed with the assertion of Senate leaders that their bill has fewer constitutional problems.
The Senate proposal was initially criticized by Arthur Licata, attorney for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has been holding a vigil at the State House in support of the House bill.
At first, Licata said he preferred the House version, saying that while the Senate version had many good points, it contained "serious risks" because it exempts many drivers from having their licenses suspended if their blood alcohol level is above a certain figure.
However, after meeting with representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Licata said they did not agree with his assessment and believed the important thing was to get a bill signed into law by the end of the month.
The reversal seemed to follow some strong lobbying from aides to Gov. Dukakis, who has made passage of the drunken driving legislation a priority. One State House observer close to the negotiating process said he was concerned that the exchanges between the branches over the bill, coupled with the initial criticism from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, could hinder the chance for resolving the differences.
The intense drunken driving negotiations took place while both the House and Senate were trying to wrap up the year's legislative business. Major bills that passed yesterday included repeal of the state's 7. 5 percent surtax and the splitting of the Department of Mental Health into two new agencies.
Still pending in the Senate was another Dukakis priority, a bill that would overhaul the state's criminal sentencing statute. With strong differences between the House and Senate bills on drunken driving, legislative leaders predicted both measures would be referred to a conference committee for action. McGovern said it was likely the Legislature would reconvene before Christmas to get a law to Dukakis.
Also referred to a conference committee was legislation calling for the expansion of the prison system and the relocation of the Deer Island House of Correction. Pension reform legislation, another priority of Dukakis, has been stalled in conference since July.
Under the House version of the drunken driving legislation, which passed earlier this week, any driver who took a Breathalyzer test and registered a blood-alcohol level of .10 or above would lose his or her license for 60 to 120 days.
The amended version offered by the Senate committee calls for license revocation for drivers who take a Breathalyzer test and register a blood- alcohol level of .10 or above -- but only if the operator of the car is under 21 or has a previous conviction or has caused serious bodily harm to at least one person.
The Senate version also differs from the House bill in that a driver who refuses to take a Breathalyzer test will have that information disclosed at trial.
McGovern conceded that the Senate bill affected a smaller number of drivers, but said that the penalties imposed are more harsh.
She also insisted the Senate proposal is more fair because it addresses constitutional due process problems by requiring that a judge, not a court clerk, preside over the automatic license revocation hearing.
Other differences include:
- Sentences for vehicular homicide were extended from a minimum of 1 to 10 years to 1 to 15 years.
- License suspensions for first-time offenders convicted of drunken driving were extended from 30 days to 45 to 90 days.
- The minimum mandatory sentence for conviction on motor vehicle homicide was extended from 10 years to 15 years.
This year's legislative session automatically ends at midnight on Jan. 6 and there was speculation that legislators wanted to wrap things up this week because a delegation was headed to Florida and the Caribbean for conventions.
Eighteen legislators are scheduled to attend a four-day conference in Orlando, Fla., that is sponsored by the Council of State Governments. Five will then continue on to another meeting in the Virgin Islands.
A spokesman for House Speaker George Keverian (D-Everett) said the costs would not be known until the legislators returned and filed expense reports. Keverian must approve all out-of-state travel.
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