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Wis. lawmakers try again on drunken driving laws

  • Associated Press
  • December 31, 2012 - 11:24 AM

MADISON, Wis. - Two Republican legislators are gearing up for another try at toughening the notoriously weak drunken driving laws in Wisconsin, where pounding booze is hard-wired into the culture — and drunken driving kills scores every year.

In Wisconsin, a driver who is caught driving over the limit for the first time is charged with a civil violation akin to a speeding ticket. But the introduction of harsher sanctions has been held back by prohibitive cost estimates and push back from the state's powerful Tavern League.

State Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling say they will try again this session to criminalize certain first-time offenses, make a third offense a felony and establish mandatory minimum sentences for drivers who cause crashes.

"We continue to have so many outrageous crashes in Wisconsin," Ott, of Mequon, said. "Do we just sit back and say `we have to live with this' or are we going to try to do something?"

Nearly identical measures went nowhere last session, weighed down by a steep price tag. Their prospects aren't much clearer this time, either. Republican leaders have been noncommittal and there's no indication the changes will be any cheaper.

Ott said the cost estimates last session were unrealistic and he's hopeful at least some of the new proposals will pass.

Drinking has been a favorite Wisconsin pastime for generations. Booze isn't just tolerated in this state, it's woven into the cultural fabric with keg parties, back-road bars and a major league baseball team called the Brewers.

But that tradition has led to mayhem on the roads.

At least 220 people have been killed in alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin every year between 2002 and 2011, according to state Department of Transportation statistics. More than 51,000 people have been injured over that span, the data shows.

Democrats used majorities in the Senate and Assembly in 2009 to push through a bill that made a first-time offense a misdemeanor if a child is in the car and made a fourth offense a felony if it occurs within five years of the third offense. Supporters who had been pushing for tougher penalties for years praised the changes. Critics complained the legislation didn't go far enough.

Ott has been pushing for tougher laws for several years, working to fulfill a promise he made to Judy Jenkins, a constituent whose pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter were killed by a repeat drunken driver in 2008.

He and Darling worked on several bills last session, including proposals that would have criminalized first offenses for drivers with particularly high blood alcohol contents and made third and fourth offenses felonies.

But the proposals went nowhere after state agencies estimated the measures would have cost tens of millions of dollars a year. For example, the Department of Corrections projected it would have to build six new alcohol treatment centers that would cost $71.5 million a year to run. Ott said the agencies overestimated the potential costs.

Ott and Darling said this time they'll try to make first-time offenders with blood alcohol contents of 0.15 percent or more — "super drunks," — guilty of a crime; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they're tagged with a civil violation; make a third offense a felony; and allow judges to order police to seize third-time offenders' cars. Also on tap are mandatory minimum sentences for drunken drivers involved in crashes that result in injuries or death.

Tougher penalties will deter drunken driving, resulting in fewer convictions and lower costs, Ott said, adding he'll push for a more accurate cost projection this time.

"It's a tough situation," said Darling's spokesman Bob Delaporte when pressed on how to pay for the measures. "It costs more, but we have to protect the people of Wisconsin from drunken drivers."

It's unclear how much support Ott and Darling might muster this time.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker is open to strengthening drunken driving laws, his spokesman said, but he did not comment on the new proposals. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's spokesman was also noncommittal, saying all ideas deserved to be debated. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, didn't return several messages.

One potential roadblock could be the Tavern League, a formidable lobbying force that represents 13,000 bars, taverns and restaurants. The league has criticized the high cost of drunken driving law changes in the past but didn't register a position on any of the bills Ott and Darling worked on last session, state Government Accountability Board records show. The league's lobbyist, Scott Stenger, didn't immediately respond to a message left at his office or an email.

Pete Hanson, vice president of public affairs for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said the biggest problem he sees is dollar signs.

"To be honest, I don't expect to see a whole lot of opposition," Hanson said.

Jenkins said she was hopeful something will pass since Republicans have complete control of state government. As for the cost, she said the state would be better off paying to prevent crashes.

"We always talk about price tags but you have to balance that with the cost the state and individuals pay without the legislation," Jenkins said. "Maybe we've reached a tipping point, which would be great for the people of Wisconsin. This has become a huge public safety issue."

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