September 6, 2016 5:00 PM, EDT

Tennessee Governor Calls for Special Session to Avoid Losing $60 Million in NHTSA Funds

Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg News
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has called what he termed an “extraordinary session” of the General Assembly for Sept. 12-14 in order to prevent the loss of $60 million in federal highway funds.

The need for legislation to address the issue occurred last month when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notified Tennessee’s Department of Transportation that a bill that passed overwhelmingly during this year’s regular legislative session and was signed by Haslam put the state out of compliance with a federal “zero tolerance” drunken driving statute that governs some highway funding.

“Tennessee’s recent changes to its drunk driving laws put it out of compliance with the federal zero tolerance law for underage drivers,” NHTSA said in a statement. “The governor’s decision to call a special session to bring the state into compliance will improve safety on Tennessee’s roads.  If the state’s drunk driving laws are changed to comply with federal law before Oct. 1, Tennessee will not forfeit 8% of its federal highway funds.”

According to Haslam’s office, the law actually strengthened penalties for DUI offenders aged 18 to 20. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said the state continues to meet the requirements of federal “zero tolerance” drunken driving statute. Regardless, NHTSA told Tennessee officials the state would permanently lose $60 million if it remained out of compliance as of Oct. 1.

“We are disappointed in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision,” Haslam wrote in his Sept. 3 announcement. “The state made clear to federal officials that while it disagrees with the interpretation that Tennessee is out of compliance, any such perceived impact of the law was inadvertent and could be fixed in January 2017. [But] to avoid any negative impact to the state, I will ask the General Assembly to convene in a special session and clarify state law in this matter.”

Tennessee Trucking Association President Dave Huneryager said Haslam and other state officials are making the proper moves.

“They were trying to do the right thing by strengthening the penalty for underage drinking,” Huneryager told Transport Topics. “It’s unfortunate that it had to come to this because it’s certainly going to cost the state some money to hold a special session for three days. It’s the only thing on the agenda, but it obviously needs to be done.” 

All 11 members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation have asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to work with Haslam and other state officials to find a solution.