Differences on a tough new drunken driving bill, passed in different forms by the House and Senate, should be ironed out to allow a new law to take effect before the Christmas and New Year holidays, leaders of a legislative conference committee agreed yesterday.
Although two major issues separate the two versions of the bill, House and Senate chairmen of the committee formed to work out differences were confident that agreement would be reached. The stumbling blocks include the admissibility of a refusal to take a Breathalyzer test as evidence and who should fall under the so-called per se section, which carries an automatic license suspension for drivers registering at least a .10 blood-alcohol level on a Breathalyzer test.
Both versions substantially increase penalties for driving while under the influence of alcohol in an effort to crack down on drunk drivers who kill and maim.
A compromise bill will be ready for the Legislature by Dec. 16, predicted Sen. Louis P. Bertonazzi (D-Milford), Senate chairman of the House-Senate conference committee.
"The House, Senate and the governor all want this bill. We already agree on most points," said Bertonazzi.
House chairman Richard A. Voke (D-Chelsea) agreed, saying he is "quite confident we will have a bill before Christmas."
The six-member committee was appointed early yesterday after the Senate voted 32-0 for its version of the bill while rejecting a rival proposal passed by the House 132-0 on Monday.
Gov. Dukakis had joined with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to pledge "the full force" of his office for passage of a new law to close loopholes and strengthen drunken driving measures.
Although the bill has been in the House for almost a year, it was reported out of committee, passed and sent to the Senate only this week as the Legislature prepared to recess. The timing angered many senators, who complained they were handed a major piece of technically flawed legislation at the last minute.
MADD supporters held a vigil outside the Senate, demanding action on the House version. However, they switched their support to the Senate bill after learning of its provisions, saying it was tougher than they anticipated.
Meanwhile, their attorney and spokesman, Arthur Licata, was briefly at odds with the MADD leaders, telling reporters and legislators that the Senate per se proposal cut the heart out of the bill. After conferring with MADD leaders, he voiced agreement with the Senate bill.
Yesterday, Licata, reading from a prepared statement, said: "I am in the process of talking to the chapter presidents which are six in number. They are being canvassed in order to review the details of the Senate bill. The membership is presently leaning favorably toward the Senate version."
Paul Pezzella, a Dukakis administration lobbyist, said, "There seems to have been a lot of miscommunication between MADD and their spokesman." He said yesterday he is certain a new bill will be ready for Dukakis to sign into law before the holiday "with some form of per se in it."
In the House version, any driver who registers .10 or greater on the Breathalyzer would be subject to an automatic loss of license for 60 to 120 days, although the suspension could be appealed. Under the Senate proposal, the only persons subject to the per se provision would be those under 21, repeat offenders and anyone who caused bodily injury.
In the Senate proposal, if a person refused to take a Breathalyzer, that information would be introduced as evidence in court, contrary to the House bill.
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