Investigation: Fund for state DUI program hijacked

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A several million dollar program to keep drunks off the road has run out of money.

The fund should be flush with cash, but a Problem Solvers investigation shows it has been raided and is now being used for something else entirely.

Ignition interlocks are those devices that prevent repeat DUI offenders from starting their cars. There are 20,000 of them around the state, and each person pays an extra $20 a month into a fund that helps pay for those who can't afford to pay the $69 to $100 a month fee. That's $400,000 a month generated to pay the $200,000 needed.

But the state licensing department says that money is gone. Starting in July it will only pay a fraction of the amount for indigent clients.

There's concern that offenders may just break the law and go ahead and drive without the devices. One indigent driver with an interlock device told the Problem Solvers he needs to get to work.

"There would be no way for me to get back and forth, so I'd either have to choose to drive without my license or while it's suspended or lose my job," he said.

Former state trooper and interlock company executive Steve Luce of Smart Start says that could have tragic results.

"Our fear would be it could lead to injury accidents or fatalities in the worst-case scenario," Luce said.

It turns out the money didn't disappear. The fund was raided by budget writers in the 2013 session of the state legislature during closed door budget talks. The money instead is going to the prisons to provide drug and alcohol treatment for inmates.

"This was kind of a little surprise. We would support being able to get those funds for the ignition interlocks," said Darrin Grondel, director of the state traffic safety commission.

Rep. Judy Clibbor, who chairs the Transportation Committee, said she was blind-sided by the budget negotiations.

"If you're going to take that money and move it to any place else, you have to come back to the legislature," she said.

Budget writer Rep. Ross Hunter admits they got it wrong.

"It looks like we didn't get the forecast right here," Hunter said.

He said they never intended to kill the program. They just use the surplus dollars. Hunter said they need to fix this quickly when they convene in January.

After our Problem Solvers inquiry, Rep. Clibborn requested that the department of licensing find emergency money to keep the program going in the meantime.