No one disputes that drunken driving is a serious problem in Wisconsin. But the candidates for governor and attorney general differ in how they would address it.
“Driving while intoxicated is unacceptable,” Republican Gov. Scott Walker wrote in response to written questions. The state’s rate of alcohol-related crashes and carnage has significantly declined, he noted, citing the state’s last major toughening of its drunken driving laws, in mid-2010, before he was elected.
“Since I took office, total alcohol-related crashes declined 16 percent, alcohol-related crash injuries declined over 24 percent, and OWI convictions declined nearly 24 percent, comparing 2013 and 2010,” Walker wrote.
Even after those reductions, however, last year there were still nearly 5,000 alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin, leading to 185 deaths and 2,660 injuries.
Both Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke were mostly reluctant to commit to specific legislative proposals to address the problem. The one notable exception was that Burke, unlike Walker and the candidates for attorney general on the Nov. 4 ballot, expressed support for making first-offense drunken driving a crime in Wisconsin.
“Every other state in the country has criminalized first-time OWIs, and Wisconsin should not be any different,” Burke wrote.
In the 2013-14 legislative session, more than a dozen bills, most authored by Republicans, were introduced to toughen the state’s penalties for operating while intoxicated. But only one managed to pass the GOP-controlled Legislature.
The Legislature did also increase funding for alcohol treatment and diversion programs, which Walker approved. He cited this change as well as the state’s “aggressive” anti-drinking and driving campaign, “Zero in Wisconsin,” run by the state Department of Transportation.
Burke said she is also open to “preventative solutions that we can use to address this problem in the long term.” And while she backs legislative efforts to address the problem, Burke stressed that any changes must be “fiscally responsible” and not create unfunded mandates for local governments.
Walker said he was open to “looking at changes to state law in a comprehensive way in partnership with the Legislature to see where we can improve.”
The candidates for state attorney general — Republican Brad Schimel and Democrat Susan Happ, both with law enforcement backgrounds — were more willing to address specific proposals.
Schimel, the district attorney of Waukesha County, said he would support changing state law to eliminate the “loophole” that allows some second-time OWI offenders to avoid criminal convictions and some fourth-time offenders to avoid a felony charge if enough years have passed since their last convictions.
But Schimel does not support requiring all persons convicted of OWI to have ignition interlock devices installed on their cars. He said the current standard, which requires these devices only for repeat offenders, first-time offenders with a high blood alcohol concentration and those who refuse a sobriety test, makes sense to him.
Happ, the district attorney of Jefferson County, also backs toughening the penalties for repeat offenders and said she would “consider” requiring interlock devices for all offenders, as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce recidivism.
Changing the law to require these devices is the top state legislative priority of the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. A bill to do so in the past session was opposed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin and died without coming up for a hearing or vote.
Happ backs mandatory minimum sentences for OWI offenders who cause injury or death. But both she and Schimel noted that the lone penalty-toughening bill to pass last session had unintended consequences.
That bill created mandatory minimum penalties for drivers who cause substantial injury or death in their seventh or subsequent OWI offense. But it inadvertently erased the ability of prosecutors to criminally charge offenders who cause minor injuries. Happ and Schimel say the law needs to be corrected as soon as possible.
The attorney general candidates expressed support for treatment programs like those in place in their counties. They restated their reluctance to make first-offense drunken driving a crime in Wisconsin, each citing a lack of evidence that this would be effective.
“We cannot incarcerate our way out of our problems,” Happ wrote, pledging a multifaceted approach of “strong enforcement, with enhanced penalties, increased mandatory minimums for repeat offenders along with education, prevention and treatment.”
Schimel, while also embracing a range of approaches, specifically called for more law enforcement officers on the state’s roadways. “The ultimate deterrence to drunk driving would be the certainty of knowing if you drive home intoxicated you will be pulled over,” he said.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.