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Booze interest holds sway in Legislature

By Matt Pommer

A watchdog group is blaming large legislative campaign donations for what the group calls a tepid approach to tightening drunken driving laws.

In the last decade, the booze industry — including manufacturers of alcohol products, distributors and taverns — has contributed $2.53 million to legislative candidates and leadership committees of both parties. That’s the 10th highest overall contribution among 100 special interest categories tracked by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Wisconsin tightened up drunken driving laws a little bit in the last two years. But Wisconsin remains the only state in which first offense drunken driving is a traffic offense and not a criminal misdemeanor in all cases, the watchdog group reports.

Wisconsin and North Dakota are the only states in which drunken driving is not a felony in all cases until the fifth conviction, according to the Democracy Campaign. Wisconsin also is one of only 12 states that do not allow roadside sobriety checkpoints.

But more repeat drunken drivers will end up in prisons. Corrections officials estimate hundreds of repeat drunken drivers will go to prison and thousands will be put on probation or extended supervision.

For decades 18-year-olds could drink beer in the state. In 2008, more than 37,000 drunken driving arrests were made in Wisconsin.

There have been repeated newspaper campaigns to crack down on drunken driving, often after a series of horrific road accidents tied to drinking.

Three decades ago a series of those accidents prompted reporters to ask then-Gov. Lee Dreyfus about the problem. He said it might help if the State Patrol were to monitor tavern parking lots in rural areas. That might deter drivers from drinking too much or buying “one for the road,” he said.

The idea died before the sun went down. Calls from tavern owners and drinkers poured into the state Capitol after the press conference reports spread. The outcry wouldn’t have been greater had Dreyfus declared war on Iowa.

Changing social habits is a long process. As early as 1964, scientists reported that tobacco smoking, particularly of cigarettes, caused cancer. It took 45 years before Wisconsin would adopt a clean air act curbing smoking in public places. Raising cigarette taxes still makes many lawmakers nervous, even as the percentage of smokers drops.

The tougher drunken driving law, which was adopted by the current Legislature, costs money. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the annual cost could run between $47 million and $82 million. Much of it will end up being paid at the county level by property taxpayers.

It’s easier for the Legislature to pass on the enforcement costs to counties than to enact higher taxes on drinkers and the booze industry.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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