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Originally published Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 4:41 PM

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Editorial: Drunken-driving law takes back seat to budget reality

The scaled-down drunken-driving law should be a lesson in budget prioritization for Gov. Jay Inslee.

Seattle Times Editorial

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DURING the waning days of each Legislative session, castles in the sky become weighted by reality, and come crashing down.

That was the fate for the big dream of rewriting the state’s drunken-driving laws, an idea advanced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and heavily endorsed by Gov. Jay Inslee. As a deal for an operating budget emerged Thursday, lawmakers realized they simply couldn’t afford the huge criminal-justice costs of getting tougher on drunken driving.

The tragic death of Dennis and Judy Schulte in Wedgwood this March gave this proposal a strong political tail wind. They were hit by a repeat drunken driver who’d failed to install a mandatory ignition lock and was driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit.

But the solution — stiffening criminal sentences and lowering the threshold for felony charges — was estimated to cost $300 million over the next three years. Faced with spending limited state money on schools or prisons, lawmakers wisely picked kids and jettisoned those ideas.

A vastly scaled-down proposal, passed by the House and Senate this week, still does some good. It quickens the clock for filing charges, which is a chronic problem in King County District Court, as Seattle Times reporter Brian M. Rosenthal recently described.

It also sets up a regional experiment with advanced alcohol-monitoring technology, allowing lawmakers next year to see if it makes sense statewide. The overall price tag: about $2 million.

Responsible budgeting requires discipline. Inslee, in his first session in Olympia in two decades, simultaneously pushed expensive drunken-driving laws, a big education agenda and a broader social-safety net, and sought to pay for it all with $1.2 billion in new revenue.

Near closing time in Olympia, the have-it-all plan contracted to an education-first budget, no damage to social services and a fraction of Inslee’s proposed new revenue. Inslee should take a cue and present a more reality-based agenda next session.

That very well could include revisiting drunken-driving laws. Expensive criminal justice proposals should be introduced early in the session, when they can be vetted for sustainability.

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