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Lawmakers try again on first-offense drunken driving (UPDATE)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two Republican legislators are continuing their quest to crack down on drunken driving, reintroducing bills Thursday that would make a first offense a crime and impose stiffer penalties on repeat offenders.

Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling have been working for nearly a decade to establish stiffer drunken-driving penalties in Wisconsin, the only state that treats a first offense as a civil violation rather than a crime.

Drunken driving is rampant in the state — an average of one person was killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash every 2.9 hours on Wisconsin roads in 2015, according to the state Department of Transportation — but the two lawmakers have had little success working against deeply ingrained drinking habits and a powerful tavern-league lobby.

Nevertheless, Ott and Darling began seeking others sponsors for legislation on Thursday, three days before new legislators are sworn in for the 2019-21 session.

The most significant proposal would make all first offenses misdemeanors punishable by up to $500 worth of fines and 30 days in jail. First offenders who don’t commit another operating-under-the-influence offense for five years could ask a judge to vacate their convictions and amend the record to show a civil violation.

“This bill shows that Wisconsin is taking drunk driving seriously, while at the same time offering a second chance to those who do not reoffend within five years,” Ott said in a news release.

In 2012, Ott and Darling introduced a similar bill, one that would have made a first offense a misdemeanor if a driver’s blood-alcohol content was 0.15 percent or higher. The new proposal doesn’t include minimum BACs.

The lawmakers have a new ally this time around: Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who told reporters on Wednesday that he wants to criminalize first offenses in hopes of deterring drunken driving. Evers made the remarks after a suspected drunken driver struck and killed a firefighter who had stopped to help a driver during a snowstorm in Madison on New Year’s Eve, making headlines in the state’s capital city.

It’s unclear how much influence Evers will have, though, since Republicans control both legislative houses.

Other bills in the proposals would mandate that anyone convicted of homicide by the intoxicated use of a vehicle be sentenced to at least five years in prison; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they’re tagged with a civil violation; and increase minimum sentences for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months.

The two lawmakers introduced the same bills last session to no avail. Fiscal estimates projected the homicide bill alone would cost the state prison system hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, was noncommittal when asked about the bills’ chances, saying only that Republican senators plan to discuss their policy priorities later this month.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t immediately respond to an email. Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Tavern League, didn’t immediately return a voicemail.

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