- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas is at risk of losing more than $50 million in federal highway funding after the state’s highest court ruled that prosecutors must show intent in driving while intoxicated cases, a state transportation official said Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Highway and Transportation Department said a change in state law is needed so the state will still be eligible to receive certain federal highway funds. Spokesman Danny Straessle said the department hopes Gov. Asa Hutchinson will include changing state law on the agenda for a special session convening next week for an economic development project.

“Any loss of federal funding is a concern because federal funding is at a premium right now,” Straessle said. “Any of those federal funds that are at risk, we want to minimize that risk and make sure we don’t miss out on any of that money.”

Justices last month reversed the DWI conviction of a Springdale man who was caught “sleep driving” after taking Ambien. The driver appealed, arguing state law requires someone to knowingly drive while intoxicated in order to be convicted.

Straessle said highway officials are worried the ruling would put Arkansas out of compliance with certain DWI laws the government requires states to have to receive some highway funding.

Sen. David Johnson, who had raised concerns about the ruling earlier this month, said he believed the law can be changed to clarify that DWI is a “strict scrutiny” offense, meaning one that doesn’t requiring proving mental intent.

“The solution is an easy fix,” Johnson, D-Little Rock, said. “The Arkansas Supreme Court identified an obvious ambiguity and it’s an ambiguity the Legislature needs to fix.”

Hutchinson last week announced he was calling a special session beginning May 26 to take up an incentive package aimed at helping Lockheed Martin win a defense contract for its facility in south Arkansas. A spokesman said Hutchinson on Wednesday will announce what else would be on the agenda for the session, and said the DWI law change was among the items he was considering including.

The concern about the potential funding loss comes as the state has put more than $282 million in road projects on hold because of uncertainty surrounding the Federal Highway Trust Fund.


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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