- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Assembly Republicans were set to cap a drive to get tougher on drunken driving Tuesday, setting up a final vote on a bill that would stiffen penalties for repeat offenders despite daunting cost estimates.

The legislation has already cleared the Senate. Assembly approval would send the bill onto to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. The chamber was scheduled to take up the bill during a floor session that began at 1 p.m., but it was unclear when the vote would come even as the clock ticked toward 11 p.m. The bill was one of more than 100 proposals on the chamber’s agenda. Speaker Robin Vos has said Thursday will be the last Assembly floor day for the two-year legislative session and lawmakers are scrambling to get scores of proposals to a vote before time runs out.

The Republican measure, co-authored by Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, would make a fourth offense a felony punishable by up to three years in prison regardless of when the charge is filed. Right now, a fourth offense is a felony only if it’s committed within five years of a third offense. Otherwise it’s a misdemeanor that carries a maximum one-year jail sentence.

The legislation also would increase the maximum prison sentence for fifth and sixth offenses from three years to five. Maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses would increase from five years to seven and a half. The maximum sentence for a 10th or subsequent offense would rise from seven and a half years to a decade.

Drunken driving has plagued Wisconsin for decades. The state Department of Transportation has tracked more than 4,000 alcohol-related crashes every year from 2012 through 2015. According to preliminary agency data, 101 people died in alcohol-related crashes last year alone.

The state’s drunken driving laws remain notoriously lax; Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense is treated not as a criminal offense but a civil violation akin to a speeding ticket. Prohibitive cost estimates and resistance from powerful Tavern League lobbyists have stalled attempts to impose tougher penalties.

Ott has been pushing for years for a crackdown, trying to fulfill a promise he made to Judy Jenkins, a constituent who lost her pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter to a drunken driver in 2008.

This latest bill has generated considerable momentum. The Tavern League, the state prosecutors and police chief associations and the Wisconsin Medical Society all have registered in support, with no groups opposing the measure. The Senate approved the measure in January on a voice vote, a procedure lawmakers generally use for non-controversial bills.

The bill’s potential price tag could be high. The Department of Corrections, for example, estimated it may have to spend as much as $129 million annually as well as another $157 million to build a dozen drug abuse centers to accommodate additional repeat offenders.

Ott contends those estimates are exaggerated. Stiffer penalties will deter would-be repeat offenders, resulting in fewer inmates entering the system.

The Assembly began its Tuesday session by passing on a voice vote with no debate another Ott bill that would require first-time offenders to appear in court. Anyone who fails to appear would face a $300 surcharge and be subject to arrest. The measure goes next to the Senate.

The DOT recorded 17,675 first-time offenses in Wisconsin in 2014.

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

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