Bills seek to shore up interlock fund

By Kate Nash: The Santa Fe New Mexican

A pair of lawmakers are working this session to make sure the state can continue to help low-income New Mexicans who are convicted of DWI get access to ignition interlock devices.

The work by Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque, and House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, would define who qualifies for an indigent fund intended to help poor people drive sober and would appropriate money to the fund, which dried up late last month.

Now that the fund is empty, officials are worried about how some offenders will pay for the alcohol-sensing devices, which allow a vehicle’s engine to start only if no alcohol is detected on a driver’s breath.

“It’s going to be a problem,” Cravens said. “They will be forced to drive illegally, as they have in the past.”

State law requires all convicted offenders to use such a device for at least six months before getting his or her full driving privileges reinstated.

That law, passed last year, has meant an increase in the number of people sentenced to use the interlocks — and the number people tapping into the indigent fund.

The state Department of Transportation says the number of people using the devices rose from 1,500 in 2004 to 9,000 in 2009, and that 33 percent of offenders seek help from the fund.

The money comes from the state excise tax on alcohol and from a $100 fee that nonindigent offenders pay after they are convicted.

Deciding who is indigent and who isn’t has been a sticky problem, and the current law has seen abuses, Cravens said.

“A lot of people who claim indigency don’t qualify,” he said. “They show up in a Mercedes or Hummer.”

A measure (HB 207) by Martinez would clarify that in order to qualify to receive money from the fund, an offender would have to prove they are enrolled to receive public assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, supplemental Social Security income or low-income home energy assistance.

Cravens, meanwhile, said he wants to streamline the system for issuing the devices.

“My idea would be to automate the system and get it working properly so we don’t need too many people to make it work.” Part of his plan involves moving the administration of the ignition interlock program to the Motor Vehicle Division. It is currently under the state Department of Transportation.

He also wants to make sure the vendors who provide interlocks to indigent offenders — and get paid back by the state — can stay in business.

“My biggest concern is getting the vendors paid. I think we owe at least half a million to vendors and they could very well go out of business if we don’t get them caught up.”

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com