By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Democrats challenged a pair of Republican lawmakers Thursday to prove measures for tougher drunken driving penalties would actually make a difference, demanding to see statistics and data that would justify the bills’ costs.
Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, have introduced a package of bills that would make the first offense a misdemeanor if the driver’s blood-alcohol level is at least 0.15 percent, allow authorities to seize drunken drivers’ cars beginning at the third offense and require mandatory court appearances.
Ott and Darling told the Assembly Judiciary Committee the bills will deter drunken driving, which has plagued Wisconsin for decades.
But two Democrats on the committee, Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, hesitated. They said they wanted proof similar measures have deterred drunken driving in other states before committing any money. They called for more alcohol treatment options and questioned whether the measures would put more people behind bars and tax the criminal justice system.
“We’ve had emotional and guttural reactions to crimes in this state in the past. We lock people up … and the taxpayers are paying for it,” said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, a former state public defender. “What we have is an out-of-control, expensive criminal justice system.”
Neither Ott nor Darling had any statistics. Darling told members she would try to put something together.
“I don’t care what other states do,” Ott said. “Something’s wrong (in Wisconsin).”
Drinking is ingrained in Wisconsin culture, creating trouble on the roads. State transportation officials tracked nearly 2,800 fatal crashes and nearly 40,000 injury crashes involving alcohol between 2002 and last year.
But the state’s drunken driving laws are notoriously lax. Wisconsin, for example, is the only state where a first offense is treated not as a crime but as a civil violation similar to a speeding ticket.
Ott and Darling have been pushing for stiffer penalties for years. But staggering cost estimates and pushback from Tavern League lobbyists have stymied their efforts.
Earlier this month, they presented a separate set of bills to the judiciary committee that would change third and fourth offenses from misdemeanors to felonies and create mandatory minimum sentences for drunken drivers who injure or kill someone. Fiscal estimates attached to the proposals put their cost at tens of millions of dollars.
Estimates attached to the package the committee considered Thursday said seizing cars would drive up prosecutors’ costs by $413,608 per year; making first offenses a crime at 0.15 percent would increase their costs by $4 million annually.
“I don’t want to just spend money with the idea that maybe this might work,” Hebl said.
Sue Dohm of Prairie du Sac propped up a picture of her 36-year-old son, Davi Dohm, in front of the committee. Speaking through tears, she said her son was riding with a drunken co-worker in 2011 when the co-worker crashed into a tree, killing Dohm instantly.
“I am really offended when folks say we can’t afford these laws,” she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue. “Would you feel that way if it was your child lying in the funeral home, cold to your touch?”
The bills’ fate is uncertain. Ott and Darling’s fellow Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, but GOP leaders haven’t voiced any support for the measures.