Cost a Key Factor in Debate over Drunken Driving Laws

What's blocking Wisconsin from implementing new, tougher laws against drunken driving? It could be "the dollar factor."

Mark Grapentine is a seasoned observer of state politics. He was an aide to then-state Rep. Scott Walker and a policy adviser to then-Gov. Tommy Thompson. For the past decade, he’s been a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Medical Society. 

In this capacity, he’s pushed for tougher state drunken driving laws — and noticed that, despite an absence of pushback, these laws have stayed mostly the same.

“It has been interesting to watch how there has been a lack of progress in an area where there seems to be a tremendous amount of agreement on the need to do something,” Grapentine says. Wisconsin remains the only state where first-offense drunken driving is not a crime, although the civil penalties include license suspension and substantial fines.

Two state lawmakers, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, plan to re-introduce bills to hike state drunken driving penalties. Darling aide Bob Delaporte said the bills have been redrafted “exactly the same” as last session, but could yet be revised.

One bill would make first-offense drunken driving with a high blood-alcohol content a crime, and raise penalties for a second offense. Another would make third and fourth offenses felonies, and increase the severity of subsequent charges.

Last time around, the bills were backed by the Wisconsin Medical Society and a law enforcement association. No lobby group registered in opposition and, according to Grapentine, no one spoke up at the hearings to say, “Oh, this drunk driving stuff, it’s not really a problem.”

But the bills went nowhere, due to what Grapentine calls “the dollar factor.”

Higher drunken driving penalties increase prosecutors' workloads as well as county jail and state prison costs. A fiscal estimate from the state Department of Corrections put the cost of the bill regarding third and subsequent offenses at between $169 million and $204 million annually. Other agencies also weighed in, predicting higher costs.

Ott has said he considers these estimates unrealistic. Grapentine and Delaporte don’t make that claim, but Delaporte says Darling’s office has asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to look into whether the estimated costs of a previous toughening of the laws in 2009 were “realized.”

Scott Stenger, longtime lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, notes that his group has supported bills to increase penalties for habitual offenders, but is skeptical about adding penalties for first-timers, “the vast majority of whom never have another offense.”

In 2009-10, the Tavern League backed a bill mandating Breathalyzer-like devices attached to car ignitions for second-time offenders and first-time offenders with high blood-alcohol levels. This change became law. But last session it opposed a bill to require these devices for first-time offenders regardless of blood-alcohol level. That bill failed.

The Tavern League has also supported treatment for alcoholics and Saferide programs throughout the state. In a handout, it touts the decline in state alcohol-related crashes and fatalities.

But at least 220 people died in alcohol-related Wisconsin crashes every year between 2002 and 2011, and the national group Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranks the state ninth worst in the nation for its percentage of total traffic deaths that are alcohol-related, based on 2011 statistics.

Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, have both been described as open but noncommittal to new drunken driving laws. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, commends the efforts of Ott and Darling, but wants “to take a closer look at the bill draft and the fiscal estimates to see if spending nearly a half a billion dollars is the best way to prevent people from driving drunk.”

Delaporte says Darling wants to focus on “the victims of these crimes.” And Grapentine is optimistic the bills will pass, due to growing awareness that while cracking down on drunken driving can be costly, so is not cracking down: “More people are realizing the societal costs, and the costs to the individual offender.”

vocal local 1 January 23, 2013 at 06:29 AM
Personally, I think the drunk driving laws suck, are costly to both the taxpayer and the perp, don't work and stiffer penalties are not going to ease the existing situation. Your all idiots desiring to make felons out of individuals who are not heinous criminals. We have some of the lowest blood level laws and stiffest penalties and you want stiffer? How is this logical? I drink and get frustrated that I can only have one drink if I want to drive home but I don't drunk drive. We don't have any kid hang outs, schools have become the kids social arenas. Colorado has stolen Milwaukee's fame as the Beer Capital. How many jobs did we lose there? Man back to the days of the cave man has drank fermented beverages of one type or another and in moderation alcohol is healthy. One problem I see today is a lack of socialization for adults. Wouldn't you like to stop at a neighborhood pub to catch up on what your neighbors really think and become a community once again? Take away their bloody cars and reduce the crime to misdemeanor would be financially and socially more sound in my opinion.
The Donny Show January 23, 2013 at 02:54 PM
DAM is also Mother Against Dyslexia
The Donny Show January 23, 2013 at 02:54 PM
How much is a life worth?
vocal local 1 February 04, 2013 at 04:09 PM
Not very much. Your drunk, your behind the wheel, you haven't had an accident but your pulled over for whatever reason. You flunk the sobriety test. If Darling who is not known for her intelligence gets her way "you" become a heinous criminal, a felon on suspicion. HOW SMART ARE Darling and MOTHER"S AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING and you now for your efforts to destroy the constitution?. As far as Darling's claims to assist the victims, who are the victims? My thoughts are that all of us with driver's licenses in the state are the REAL Victims. Think out of the box of convention and do gooders.
DICK STEINBERG May 09, 2013 at 11:00 PM
As a former municipal judge I have heard hundreds or more of first offense OWI cases. The law has changed from .15 breath/blood test result to .10 to .08. It is reasonable to charge the .15 offender and over offender with a criminal violation. The logic that when a first time offender deserves kinder treatment is not supported by the fact that it was the first time the offender was caught. The cost of convictions can be reduced by an overhaul of the much lauded alternative sentencing guidelines. The idea of a social worker reforming a social drinker does not work. Jail time causes more problems. The bracelet is nonsense. Higher fines are ok if they are paid. Methods like community service are better and cost less, if anything. License revocations does not always stop the driving and impedes the continuation of a normal life. Occupational licenses are a joke as you do not have to be employed to get one. What we need is a non-partisan committee to make binding recommendations instead of the politicians and the tavern people running the show.


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