DENVER - For the second year in a row Democrats killed a bill that would have allowed harsher sentences for repeat drunken driving offenses.
House Bill 1036 died in the Senate Appropriations committee Tuesday on a party-line vote of four Democrats to three Republicans, despite the fact that Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston was a co-sponsor on the bill.
Colorado is one of only a few states in which convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs don't become felonies after multiple offenses. In an effort at compromise, the bill would have caused a conviction to become a felony if it were the fourth in 15 years or the third within five years.
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said he voted against the bill because it would have cost the state millions in increased incarceration numbers without any evidence that it would reduce the rate of drunken driving.
"If we're going to make a policy change like this, we need to build this into our budget," said Steadman, who is a member of the Joint Budget Committee that helps set the budget every year. "People who have repeat DUI offenses, the majority of those people suffer from alcoholism and addiction and that is a disease that . I don't think prison is necessary to treat that."
Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, introduced the bill this year for the second time. Last year it died on the Senate calendar after Democratic Senate President John Morse said he didn't have the votes to get the bill passed.
Waller said he doesn't buy the argument that there wasn't the money this year to fund the increased incarcerations associated with his bill.
"This year alone we had a $512 million surplus," Waller said. "This bill is a fraction of that surplus. If we're not going to pass this now, we're never going to do it."
Waller said clearly for Steadman, and the other three Democrats on the committee - Sens. Mary Hodge, Jessie Ulibarri and Nancy Todd - his bill wasn't a priority.
There was plenty of time for lawmakers to build the policy into the budget, he said, noting it was one of the first 50 bills filed and arrived in the Senate two weeks ago.
Currently, the maximum penalty for a repeat offender driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is one year in jail.
This bill would have made it a class five felony with up to three years of incarceration or a class five felony with up to six years.
Waller said the change in law would have gotten dangerous drivers off the streets who have shown no regard for the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill, saying that other states have failed to show that incarcerating repeat offenders has reduced the rate of drunken driving or drunken driving fatalities.