Here’s Why Criminalizing Drunk Driving Faces a Tough Road in Wisconsin

January 14, 2019

Renewed efforts to criminalize first-offense drunk driving in Wisconsin face tough prospects despite support from a bipartisan group of state legislators and a new Democratic governor.

That’s because, say observers, drinking beer and booze has long been part of the state’s culture, and the state tavern industry’s powerful trade and lobbying group – Tavern League of Wisconsin – has been officially neutral on past attempts to do so.

GOP Sen. Alberta Darling, of River Hills, and Republican Rep. Jim Ott, of Mequon, are reintroducing a measure that would make first-offense drunk driving a misdemeanor. The bill would allow offenders to have their record expunged if they do not commit a second offense for five years.

But Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbyist Frank Harris says GOP legislative leaders would have to change their minds on criminalizing first-offense drunken driving to move the bill through the legislature, and that “depends on if the tavern league would allow them to do it."

During a five-year period from January 2013 through December 2017, the Tavern League’s political action committee, corporation, and conduit contributed $296,355 to Wisconsin legislative and statewide candidates and legislative campaign committees. The top recipients of those contributions were:

Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, $34,500

Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, $32,500

GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, about $27,800

Republican Rep. Rob Summerfield, of Bloomer, $14,200

Republican Senate President Roger Roth, of Appleton, $11,470