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Wisconsin drunk driving laws lag behind

Matt Pommer

Wisconsin is a leading law-and-order state — except when it comes to drunk driving.

The state now spends more tax dollars on its prison system than it does on its university system. Wisconsin ranks first in the percentage of black males being incarcerated. The prison rate reflects in large part the “war on drugs” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws initiated during the 1970s and 1980s.

The administration continues to prosecute civil citations against hundreds who participated in sing-a-long Capitol protests against legislation maiming public employee unions. Judges have questioned the cost-benefit analysis of the government’s continued decisions to press the cases.

Gov. Scott Walker, who led the fight for fixed criminal sentences while he was in the Legislature, declines to even consider pardons.

Then there is drunk driving. Wisconsin often leads the nation in drunk driving and binge drinking. Nearly 40 percent of fatal accidents in the last decade have involved at least one drunk motorist. Often it’s the first DUI for the involved motorist.

Earlier this year the Assembly passed an anti-drunk driving package, but the State Senate adjourned without adopting the measures. Included in the Assembly package were these provisions:

Requiring any motorist charged with drunk driving to appear in court;

Requiring repeat offenders to install ignition devices that detect alcohol on the motorist’s breath; and,

Charging second-time offenders with a misdemeanor crime. Other states use that charge for first-time offenders.

The drunken drivers issue was shuffled off to a task force that is to make recommendations for the 2015 Legislature. But four citizen members of the task force – two physicians and two health professionals – resigned from the Department of Transportation task force.

They complained about the Tavern League’s large role on the task force, contending their own participation was being used just to lend a measure of credibility to the task force.

Action on drunk drivers is complicated. Tougher penalties and requiring court appearances will cost money. Unless the elected officials in Madison step up with significant funds, the burden will fall on the property taxes collected by the state’s 72 counties.

Politicians may try to weasel out of providing the funds by suggesting county governments could surely find some other local program to cut to pay the costs of tougher driving laws. Local officials note the elected folks in the State Capitol already are willing to pay for crowded prisons for drug crimes that probably aren’t as dangerous to innocent people as drunk motorists.

Some would suggest that the state could meet part of the financial burden of tougher drunk drivers laws by raising the taxes on alcoholic beverages. Legislators fret that tavern owners will use a tax increase on a barrel of beer to increase the price of every glass of beer sold with the bartender blaming the price increase on actions in the State Capitol.

Wisconsin has a history of being a hard-drinking state, perhaps due to its German and Norwegian heritage. A recent feature article published by the Huffington Post web site cited Wisconsin’s eating and drinking habits. On the eating side were the hundreds of thousands of cream puffs sold at the State Fair and the pastries from Racine. Millions of pounds of cheese come from Wisconsin.

On the drinking side, Wisconsin has just 57 fewer drinking places than California. Beer amounts to 3.9 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. There are at least 90 craft breweries in the Badger state, it said.

“People in Wisconsin know how to eat and they know how to drink,” the Huffington Post commented. The drunk driver statistics may challenge that idea.

Matt Pommer, a retired reporter for The Capital Times, writes a column distributed by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.