Wisconsin: Senate won’t boost liquor tax to pay for drunken-driving measure

Source: Journal Sentinel

By Patrick Marley

Oct 29th

For all coverage in the Wasted in Wisconsin series visit our special section. Madison – An effort to strengthen the state’s drunken driving law will not include an increase in the liquor tax.

Instead, state senators will look to raising the fee for suspended and revoked driver’s licenses to help pay for the tougher laws, said Sen. Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa), the lead Senate sponsor of the bill.

Leaders in the Senate and Assembly have not agreed on a final package, but senators have removed the biggest hurdle to a deal by dropping the liquor tax.

Democrats control both houses. They have made reforming drunken driving laws a top priority but have differed over the liquor tax.

The bill would make some fourth drunken driving offenses felonies and require more ignition interlock devices.

Sullivan said new estimates show the bill will cost about half as much as previously believed. That gives lawmakers a chance to drop the liquor tax increase, he said.

Assembly leaders welcomed the breakthrough.

“Now that they’re off the tax increase, I think we can work with them,” said Rep. Tony Staskunas (D-West Allis), lead Assembly sponsor of the measure.

“I think we’re moving in the same direction,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee.

The committee had planned to take up the bill Wednesday, but had to drop it because of the disagreement over the liquor tax.

Now, the committee plans to take up the bill Tuesday. That would give the two houses a chance to pass the measure by Thursday, the last day they are scheduled to be on the floor this year.

The Assembly unanimously passed a bill in September to toughen drunken-driving laws. A Senate committee earlier this month passed a similar bill and added the liquor tax to it.

A recent cost estimate said the tougher laws would cost $36.5 million to $73.7 million a year, but Sullivan said a new estimate shows a range of about half that amount. Sullivan said the new estimate is lower because it recognizes the deterrent effect of requiring more ignition interlocks – Breathalyzer-like devices that allow vehicles to start only if drivers show they don’t have alcohol in their systems.

Sullivan has not fully refined his proposal and has not yet determined whether the increased fee would be for reinstating all suspended and revoked licenses or for just those of drunken drivers. Now, it costs $60 to reinstate a license.

Senate aides said they were considering a range of increases to make sure they generated enough money to pay for the drunken driving bill.

Move criticized

Joe Volk, executive director of the Milwaukee anti-poverty group Community Advocates, said a fee increase on suspended and revoked licenses would unfairly hit the poor. “This is just one more obstacle, more piling on, to poor people,” Volk said.

Sullivan’s plan would also raise an existing penalty on offenders from $20 to $163. That increase was part of an earlier version of the bill.

The bill would:

. Make a fourth offense a felony if it occurs within five years of the previous offense. Now, drunken driving isn’t a felony until the fifth offense.

. Require ignition interlocks for all repeat drunken drivers and for first-time offenders with blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 or greater – nearly twice the legal limit for driving.

. Make a first-offense drunken driving a misdemeanor if a child younger than 16 is in the vehicle. Wisconsin is the only state to treat first offenses as traffic tickets, rather than crimes. The provision wouldn’t affect punishments for those with two or more offenses if they were caught driving with a child in the vehicle.

. Expand statewide a Winnebago County program that gives judges the option of offering reduced jail time to offenders who complete alcohol or drug treatment. Backers say it saves money while reducing recidivism.

The version of the bill the Senate Judiciary Committee approved two weeks ago would have raised the tax on hard liquor 58%, from 85.86 cents per liter to almost $1.36. It would have raised $25 million a year

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