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Wisconsin Lawmakers Move To Strengthening Drunken Driving Laws


Now to Wisconsin, where state lawmakers are rethinking that state's drunk driving laws - in particular, the part that goes easy on the first offense. Here's Corrinne Hess of Wisconsin Public Radio.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: It's just before 6 a.m. in Madison on a 40-degree Sunday morning in March. A hodgepodge of tents and sleeping bags are set up outside a vintage brewing company. About 250 people are waiting in line to buy tickets to a craft beer festival. Some, like Nick Courtney, have been camping for 24 hours.

NICK COURTNEY: It's a thing to do. You show up. You have some fun. You drinks some beers. You grill some meat.

HESS: It's Wisconsin, after all, and some people will do just about anything for their beer. Julia Sherman works with the University of Wisconsin's Alcohol Policy Project. The group estimates on average, Wisconsin drinkers consume 634 drinks per year, more than 25% higher than the national average.

JULIA SHERMAN: I think that a lot of it comes from the fact that it's not specific occasions; it's almost every occasion.

HESS: Wisconsin's embrace of alcohol manifests itself in many ways. Church festivals sell beer. Parents bring alcohol-filled coolers to children's sporting events, and the state has some of the most lenient drinking and driving laws in the country.

Now Republican legislators are trying to strengthen those laws. And newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers supports the effort. State Representative Jim Ott is leading the charge.

JIM OTT: There's too much drunk driving in Wisconsin. Too many people are injured. Too many people are killed, too many wrong-way drivers, too many people being smashed into.

HESS: While Wisconsin doesn't criminalize drunk driving on the first offense, neighboring states have much stricter laws. In Minnesota, a first offense is punishable by 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In Illinois, the fine is $2,500 and up to one year in jail. Wisconsin's laws regulating alcohol have long favored the industries that produce and distribute it.

Even in 2011, when Republicans and Democrats were at war over ending collective bargaining rights for unions, they were able to agree on a sweeping proposal to rewrite Wisconsin's beer distribution laws. Here are Democratic Senator Bob Jauch and Republican Senator Alberta Darling discussing it at a budget hearing.


ROBERT JAUCH: But then it wouldn't be a budget without having something to do with liquor wholesalers or beer wholesalers or...


JAUCH: It is every - every budget.

ALBERTA DARLING: It is Wisconsin.

HESS: Another major player here is the 5,000-member Tavern League of Wisconsin. Republican Representative Rob Swearingen led the group before being elected.

ROB SWEARINGEN: Every one of these lawmakers has a tavern in their backyard - or a supper club or a reception hall or somebody that's got a liquor license.

HESS: The way alcohol has permeated Wisconsin's culture has been costly for residents. A 2013 report estimated excessive drinking cost the state nearly $7 billion in 2012. Lawmakers have tried before to strengthen Wisconsin's alcohol laws and were met with considerable resistance. But now, with support on both sides of the aisle, it could finally be last call for leniency when it comes to drinking and driving. For NPR News, I'm Corrinne Hess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrinne Hess
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