- Associated Press - Thursday, November 12, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A bill that would strip repeat drunken drivers of their licenses gained traction with an Assembly committee Thursday after members agreed they need to send a message it’s time to get tough on impaired driving.

The bill’s authors, Reps. Eric Genrich and Andre Jacque and Sen. Van Wanggaard, told the Assembly Judiciary Committee that the measure isn’t a cure-all but represents a step forward for a state with a deeply ingrained drinking culture and lax drunken driving laws. Wisconsin is the only state that doesn’t criminalize a first offense.

“I’m sick and tired of seeing on the news, in the paper, some person who’s been convicted of seven, eight, nine, 10 OWIs (operating under the influence),” Jacque, R-DePere, said. “We have to show we’re going to take this issue seriously in Wisconsin, because right now we don’t have credibility on that.”

Dan Peterson, a Racine handyman, told the committee a drunken driver killed his 31-year-old son, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s friend in June. He said he doesn’t feel safe on the roads.

“You’re supposed to protect people like me,” Peterson said. “I don’t think I can take another loss. Please, help me.”

Previous attempts to toughen Wisconsin’s drunken driving laws have largely failed amid concerns about increasing court costs and pushback from the Wisconsin Tavern League, the state’s powerful alcohol lobby. The league supports the revocation bill, however. No one testified against the bill and no committee members voiced any opposition Thursday.

Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, said after the hearing that he hopes to hold a committee vote on the bill next month and get the proposal to the Assembly floor in January.

“We are trying,” said Ott, who is working on his own package of bills that would increase minimum sentences for repeat offenders. “I won’t be satisfied until we get some tougher laws in Wisconsin.”

Currently, the state Department of Transportation can revoke drunken drivers’ licenses for several years. Those drivers can apply for occupational licenses, which allow them to drive limited hours to and from work.

Under the bill, the DOT would be required to permanently revoke the license of anyone caught driving drunk five or more times. The agency also would have to permanently revoke a license after three or more drunken driving offenses and two or more convictions for serious crimes involving a vehicle. The revoked drivers wouldn’t be eligible for an occupational license.

Revoked drivers would not be able to petition the DOT for a reinstated license for 10 years. They would have to show they haven’t been convicted of a crime, submit to an alcohol assessment and develop a driver safety plan to be eligible for reinstatement.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has registered as neutral. Their chief lobbyist has said the proposal looks good but taking away a piece of paper won’t stop drunks from getting behind the wheel. The group wants ignition interlocks in offenders’ cars for 10 years.

Rep. Josh Zepnick, a Milwaukee Democrat and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, lost his sister to a drunken driver in 1990 and was arrested for first-time drunken driving himself last month. He submitted written testimony to the committee saying the bill doesn’t go far enough and he’ll propose an amendment requiring interlocks for a decade.

Jacque and Wanggaard were skeptical of that idea, saying offenders could just drive others’ cars. Wanggaard added he’s working on a bill that would prohibit drunken drivers from legally driving anyone’s car without an interlock device.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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