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State Legislature debates tougher OWI laws for Wisconsin

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MADISON (WITI) -- The state Legislature is debating tougher OWI laws for Wisconsin. Three bills had a hearing Thursday, August 1st at the Capitol in Madison.  All three would stiffen the penalties for getting behind the wheel while under the influence.

Paul Jenkins of Mequon testified in support of the bills. His daughter, Jennifer Bukosky, Jennifer's unborn baby and Jennifer's daughter were killed in 2008, when an impaired driver slammed into her car.

"Wisconsin court sentencing seems to go along with the idea that it's the culture here in Wisconsin.  It's a mistake to drink and drive. Driving while drunk is not an accident.  It is a choice made by the individual," Jenkins said.

Statistics show it's a deadly choice. In the last decade, 3,000 have been killed and over 50,000 injured in impaired driving accidents.

"Wisconsin has a drunk driving problem," Sen. Alberta Darling (R - River Hills) said.

Sen. Darling and Rep. Jim Ott (R - Mequon) have teamed up on the package of three bills.

The first would change a third OWI offense from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The second would change the minimum jail sentence for an OWI that causes injury from 30 days to six months.

The third would require a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for an OWI that causes death.

"We can send a strong message to people who cause these crashes.  If you kill someone with an automobile while driving drunk in Wisconsin, you are going to prison for a long time," Rep. Ott said.

Special interest groups that promote alcohol consumption are against the measures and some lawmakers are concerned about the price tag of enforcement.

"The fiscal note is almost prohibitive. No matter how much we want to beat this problem, it's unlikely we're going to get this bill to go through -- it's just, it's a lot of money," State Rep. Gary Hebel (D - Sun Prairie) said.

The state Department of Corrections estimates it would cost $236 million for 17 new 300-bed facilities to house OWI offenders if the new measures were to pass.

"I find it very difficult to understand why Wisconsin can not get done what 49 other states are doing.  They seem to find a way to pay," Jenkins said. 

"Governor Walker says he supports the idea of greater OWI enforcement, but didn't say specifically what he would support.