MADISON -- Wisconsin lawmakers who seek to toughen some of the nation's weakest drunken driving laws have proposed several bills for 2016, although disagreements remain over legislation targeting both repeat and first-time offenders.
"When you`ve got an average of 200 fatalities a year in Wisconsin related to drunk driving crashes, I don`t think that`s acceptable by anyone`s standards," Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, said.
Ott has offered five bills, ranging from stiffer penalties for repeat offenders to requiring that first-time offenders appear in court.
The Legislature is also considering whether to revoke a person's drivers license for 10 years for a fifth-offense operating while intoxicated conviction.
Lawmakers have proposed closing a loophole in state law so people who are required to have an ignition interlock device in their vehicle would face criminal punishment if they get caught driving a vehicle without such a device. Right now, the offense is punishable by citation.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin, which lawmakers have blamed for blocking previous efforts, is neutral on the ignition interlock bill and hasn't announced a position on the revocation bill.
Matt Phillips of Stenger Government Relations, which represents the Tavern League, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment Sunday.
"What they say publicly to me is that they are certainly in favor of stronger penalties for repeat OWI offenders," Ott said. "We're going to see how many of these bills they’re going to register in favor of."
Another bill circulating in the Legislature would turn a first-offense into a criminal misdemeanor. Wisconsin is currently the only state in the U.S. that treats it as a traffic violation.
Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, said he backed both the ignition interlock and revocation bills but didn't support criminalizing first-offense OWI.
"Public opinion is strongly against it, unlike other legislation in which they`re strongly in favor of," Zepnick said.
Zepnick is a longtime supporter of tougher drunken-driving laws after his sister was killed by one in 1990. The lawmaker pleaded guilty to first-offense OWI himself in November, but said it has not changed his position on criminalizing the first offense.
"I’m living by the same laws that I’ve written and voted for myself and that I believe in personally and morally. I’m learning a tremendous lesson about it, and taking responsibility for my action," Zepnick said, adding that he would comment further about his own situation when he and his family get more comfortable with it.
First-offense OWI, while not resulting in a jail sentence, often results in more than $1,000 in court costs. The figures can go higher if the person is required to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle, while their insurance rates may also go up.
Wisconsin averages about 200 deaths every year related to drunken-driving, Ott said.