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Drunk driving
In this file photo, officials work at the scene of a two-car crash in which the driver who caused the crash was tentatively charged with four counts of causing injury by driving drunk. STEVE APPS -- State Journal

The state Assembly on Thursday is expected to pass a broad package aimed at curbing drunken driving as lawmakers close in on a compromise bill with the Senate to try to force the most serious offenders off Wisconsin roads, legislative leaders said.

Democrats pushing the proposal for increased penalties and more treatment for drunken drivers call it a first attempt at changing a culture that has made Wisconsin one of the worst states in the nation for drunken driving.

"It takes very important first steps to improve our state laws and it helps get at the root of this serious problem," said Assistant Majority Leader Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, a former police officer. "This will be the most significant drunk driving reform in Wisconsin in more than a decade."

But the legislation unveiled Tuesday by Assembly Democrats wouldn't change Wisconsin's status as the only state in the country that doesn't criminalize first-offense drunken driving.

Advocate Judy Jenkins of Mequon said the bill is a positive "baby step" that would need to be followed by more action in later proposals.

"Ultimately, it's about baby steps and something is better than nothing at this point," said Jenkins. "But of course we want them to go farther."

Jenkins' pregnant daughter, Jennifer Bukosky, and Bukosky's daughter were killed last year by a repeat drunken driver.

Rep. Tony Staskunas, D-West Allis, the author of the Assembly bill, said the proposal wouldn't be the end of the issue.

"I don't view this as the end of the Legislature working on drunk driving," Staskunas said. "It has not been an issue that the Legislature has taken seriously in the past and, frankly, the public hasn't taken it seriously. But now people are."

Bill provisions

The Assembly bill would:

• Make fourth-offense drunken driving a felony if the crime comes within five years of the third offense, tougher than the current standard of a fifth-offense felony.

• Require repeat drunken drivers and first-time offenders with a blood alcohol content of higher than .15 - nearly twice the legal limit of .08 - to install in their cars ignition interlock devices similar to breathalyzers that won't allow a car to start if a person is drunk.

• Allow other counties to participate in a Winnebago County pilot program that allows second and third-time offenders to spend less time behind bars if they successfully complete treatment. Drivers can only use the option once. Drunken drivers who complete the Winnebago program reoffend at a rate of 4 percent, well below the 52.5 percent rate for similar offenders statewide, and the program saved the county $246,000 over two years, according to county figures provided by Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

• Require that third-time offenders be locked up immediately after sentencing.

• Make a first-time offense a misdemeanor if a child under 16 years of age is in the car.

Some disappointed

The bill doesn't change current law in which first-time drunken driving is a municipal violation. The bill also would not change state prohibitions on sobriety checkpoints by law enforcement.

Jenkins said those omissions were disappointing.

But Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, the top Republican on the Assembly's Criminal Justice Committee, said most first-time offenders in the state don't reoffend and that the state should focus on repeat drunken drivers.

Kleefisch said he still hopes to make third-time drunken driving a felony, rather than the fourth offense. But he said he and some other GOP lawmakers would likely back the bill.

"There's no question that this state needs to get tough on drunken drivers," he said. "This bill sends a signal to the repeat drunken drivers."

Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, also pushed a bill making third-time drunken driving a felony. But he said Tuesday that the final agreement will likely settle on a fourth-time felony standard because the state can't afford any more costs of prosecuting and locking up criminals during a time of historic budget deficits.

Sullivan said he expects the Senate could reach a compromise with the Assembly and pass its own bill within weeks. The biggest remaining issue is how to pay for the bill, which even with its more modest penalties will still cost $13 million to $20 million, he said.

That money could be raised through a tax on liquor, higher penalties on offenders or diverting money raised by the current beer tax, he said.