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Booster seats booted from bill

ST. PAUL - Pawlenty administration officials and legislators paved over a pothole that prevented agreement on highway safety issues Wednesday, but a transportation bill containing those issues faces a likely rough road today when representatives debate a strict seatbelt provision.

A House-Senate conference committee retrieved a bill it earlier had approved so it could remove a provision that troubled Gov. Tim Pawlenty - a requirement that all children motor vehicle passengers up to age 8 use child restraint systems. The governor said the requirement went beyond what the government should do.

"The bill in its current forum is ill-considered and will be vetoed," he wrote to key transportation lawmakers Wednesday.

During a hastily called meeting, a split panel approved removing the child-restraint provision. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor had not reviewed the new bill, so could not comment on whether it would be signed into law.

Two of the three safety measures in the original bill survived - provisions that restrict a driver in the first months of holding a driver's license and a measure allowing law enforcement officers to stop vehicles when someone is not wearing a seat belt. Now, officers can write tickets when a belt is not worn, but cannot stop a vehicle for a belt violation.

That seat belt issue should produce lively discussions when it reaches the full House, probably today.

"That's because of Iron Rangers and the Democratic Party as much as anything," Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said.

Rural members, in particular, oppose the safety mandates.

Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said lawmakers should do things to improve road safety, "but when it comes to micromanaging people who are driving cars, we have to trust citizens a little bit."

"It will be Dem on Dem violence," Moe said about how Democrats will handle the debate.

Pawlenty also said the requirement for boosters seats went too far.

"If grandma were picking up her 7-year-old granddaughter and three friends from a soccer game, in response to a last-minute request from a parent, would the grandma be required to have booster seats for all four children?" Pawlenty asked. "I hope you see my point about legislative overreach."

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, has fought for years for the seat belt provision and other safety measures. He grudgingly accepted Pawlenty's request to eliminate the booster seat mandate.

"If everyone is wearing seat belts, I will be much more comfortable," Murphy said, adding that provision alone would save many lives.

Dropping the booster seat requirement will cost up to 10 children's lives, he said, and mean many others will face serious injury because they are not wearing proper restraints.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.