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Anti-DUI funds shrinking

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On the same day GOP lawmakers touted DUI problems and legislation as their top priority, a closer study of the state's finances shows this Legislature will actually take away from the DUI spending pot instead of add to it.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said late Friday he was unaware of the discrepancy in the money specifically appropriated from the state's beer tax to support substance-abuse programs.

"Now that I am aware of it, I think we should work through the session to restore that money."

For each can of beer sold in Utah, a little money from the state's beer tax goes to fight DUI and other substance-abuse problems. By state law, as much as $4.3 million each year can go toward that end. But that amount has dwindled over the years to $2.6 million for the past four years.

But a study of budget documents shows that amount will dip to its lowest level in the 2002 fiscal year — and lawmakers plan to cut another $1.1 million, about 40 percent, from these funds. The amount is expected to be about $1.5 million.

Earlier Friday, several GOP leaders called a press conference to unveil their DUI Initiative.

"It is the top priority of this Legislature, and we are prepared to do everything we need to do to solve this problem," Stephens said.

"If you are a drunk driver, we are coming after you," Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, warned in the press conference. "We will continue to tighten the restrictions on drunk driving until we have our numbers reduced."

Deseret News graphicDNews graphicFighting substance abuseRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Nora Stephens, a former state lawmaker who has led the charge against DUI for years, learned of the budget shortfall after the press conference.

"Irony is a good word to describe this situation," she said. Stephens is reluctant to judge lawmakers. She knows how it is to sit on budget committees and make difficult decisions about what programs to cut. "But this is very discouraging," she said late Friday.

Jaynie Brown, who lost her four-month-old grandson to a drunken driver and has been an advocate for stronger DUI laws, said that in contrast to lawmakers' hopes, this action will make it harder to keep drunks off the road.

"It's really short-sighted. Drunk drivers cost the taxpayers a tremendous amount of money, so to take this money away is penny-wise and pound-foolish," she said.

The beer tax money given to local communities is one place where the rubber hits the road on DUI prevention. A review of annual reports submitted by the counties that get these prevention dollars shows the following examples:

Salt Lake County — A special enforcement squad is assigned to the Wasatch canyons aimed at reducing criminal activity and traffic violations related to alcohol and drug use.

Salina, Sevier County — A surveillance program is being developed that will use video monitoring to watch convenience stores for violations of alcohol sales.

Holladay — The community just implemented a Substance Abuse Court (SAC) program that operates for two hours per week. The SAC program is an intensive court-supervised probation for DUI and other drug and alcohol offenders.

Draper — The city sponsored a summer "Cops in the Shops" program, where alcohol purchases were made by 18-year-old Sheriff's Explorer Scouts. Seven stores were cited in the program, which has led to a training class for clerks employed by the offending companies.

Utah County — Alcohol funding enabled the Utah County Sheriff's Office to research and develop a landmark administrative checkpoint program, according to a report submitted to the Utah Substance Abuse and Anti-Violence Coordinating Council.

This model has been adopted through many jurisdictions in Utah and other states and has withstood hundreds of legal challenges.

A few years ago, Nora Stephens tried unsuccessfully to hike the beer tax to raise more money for DUI prevention programs.

"At the time, beer wholesalers made the valid point that the tax shouldn't be raised for the DUI prevention because the money wasn't being used for that purpose anyway," she said.

But philosophically, Utahns expect that some money from beer sales will go to these prevention efforts, Brown said. In 1983, the Legislature increased the beer tax from $4.12 to $11 per 31-gallon barrel, and made specific appropriations to support substance abuse programs.

"I understand there isn't much money in the system this year, but to rob that fund to fill general coffers was not what the Legislature intended," Brown said. "The beer tax was specifically created to address DUI problems. But every year legislators get wandering eyes looking for ways to fund their projects. So, they have ended up siphoning off funds that should have gone to DUI prevention.

"We all pay dearly in the long run. You can't stop DUI crashes without funds," she said. The DUI effort needs funds to advertise, to change public opinion, funds to treat alcoholism and funds to lock up and catch repeat offenders, she said.

"This money really belongs in a place it can combat the DUI problem," Brown said.

This is a tough year for lawmakers, who have dozens of state agencies and citizen groups complaining about cuts to their various programs. With the state in a financial hole this year, Stephens has long said that some DUI solutions, such as one bill by a Republican senator that would rearrange the funding from the beer tax to give more money to drug and alcohol prevention, will simply have to wait.

In the budget he recommended to lawmakers, Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed a $609,000 reduction from the amount allowed to be paid out of beer tax revenues to substance-abuse programs. But the Legislature's powerful Executive Appropriations Committee, led by the same Republican leaders who held Friday's DUI Initiative press conference, went much further.

The committee recommended a cut of $1.1 million from these funds.

"It is disheartening to see further reductions in funding designed to aid local law enforcements agencies who have the primary responsibilities to keep our roads safe," said Marvin Dodge, administrator of the Utah Substance Abuse and Anti-Violence Coordinating Council.

But all of the state's departments had to cut money this year, and the Utah Tax Commission, which includes the beer tax allocations, was no different.

"What we understand is that money funds a portion of law enforcement efforts on DUI, and the thought was that those pass-through dollars would have to be reduced like everything else," said Julie Alsop, a budget planner for the tax commission.

"It was just in an effort to get everything balanced."

The Legislature still has one funding-related DUI bill to consider, which promises to bring this issue up again in the coming weeks. A DUI bill not included in the Republican-sponsored package is SB30, which requests the most substantive funding for improvements to DUI problems.

Stephens said he would look at the budget numbers, but in the meantime, he said he hopes the six pieces of legislation in the DUI Initiative don't get lost in this discussion.

The bills target a variety of important facets of the DUI problem, including: strengthening community service for DUI offenders; strengthening warning labels in bars, restaurants and stores where liquor is sold, and improving tracking of DUI offenders and convictions.

The four DUI House bills as part of the DUI Initiative sailed through the House by unanimous vote Friday morning. Two more also passed unanimously in the Senate.

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com