- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Two Republican legislators edged closer Thursday to getting a bill that would increase penalties for repeat drunken drivers passed, winning overwhelming approval for the measure in an Assembly committee and persuading a Senate panel to hold a vote on the proposal as early as next week.

Rep. Jim Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling’s bill would make a fourth offense a felony punishable by up to three years in prison regardless of when the charge is filed. Under current state law, 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.

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

The Assembly judiciary committee, which Ott chairs, approved the bill unanimously Thursday. The vote clears the way for a full vote on the Assembly floor. Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Racine Republican who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, said after a five-minute hearing on the bill hours later that he plans to hold a committee vote as early as Jan. 13.

Ott told that panel that the bill will discourage repeat drunken driving.

“(Third-time offenders will) know if they’re caught one more time they’ll be a felon,” he said. “I think that’s a strong deterrent message.”

Wanggaard, who has signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor, responded by saying the proposal would create “come-to-Jesus” moments for repeat offenders who will have to stop driving drunk or face prison.

“Fourth offense is not irresponsible use,” he said. “It’s now an addiction.”

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. Eighty-five people lost their lives in alcohol-related crashes last year, according to preliminary DOT data.

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

Still, Ott has been pushing for years for a crackdown. He’s trying to fulfill a promise he made to Judy Jenkins, a constituent whose pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter were killed by drunken driver in 2008.

The cost estimates for the bill the committees took up Thursday looked daunting. 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 construct a dozen drug abuse centers to accommodate the additional offenders. Ott said those estimates were exaggerated. Stiffer penalties will deter would-be drunken drivers, resulting in fewer inmates than anticipated, he said.

The Association of State Prosecutors, Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Wisconsin Medical Society all have registered in support of the bill. So has the Tavern League. A phone message left at the league’s offices seeking comment wasn’t immediately returned.

Wanggaard is sponsoring another bill that would strip repeat drunken drivers of their licenses for at least a decade. Ott’s Assembly judiciary committee unanimously approved that measure last month.


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

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