Most local legislators are skeptical of The Gazette Editorial Board proposal to place habitual drunken drivers under state Department of Health supervision, while equipping them with alcohol sensing devices to monitor their sobriety.

In a Sept. 22 editorial, we outlined our proposal and called on the Legislature to take action.

That won’t be happening anytime soon, not surprisingly. Wisconsin is, after all, the only state in the union that hasn’t made a first-time OWI a criminal offense. It’s a traffic ticket.

We emailed six legislators—Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva; Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville; Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit; Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton; Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville; and Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange—and asked for their responses to our plan. (All their responses are available online at GazetteXtra.com/responses. Only Nass did not participate.)

Their responses ranged from dismissive to guardedly optimistic.

On the dismissive side, August felt more state involvement wasn’t the answer and that “much of what you have proposed is already being done.” He noted alcohol sensing devices are already being used by some state and local agencies.

But there’s a big loophole in the system. These agencies stop using the devices after a certain point, such as after repeat offenders finish their parole. Our proposal is to treat repeat offenders (those with four or more OWI offenses or a conviction that includes homicide) like sex offenders, with the state Department of Health continuing to supervise offenders and monitor their alcohol use after they’ve finished parole.

August and Loudenbeck noted that the percentage of fourth OWI convictions and fatalities caused by drunken driving has declined over the past several years, suggesting current efforts are working. Yet hardly a week passes without the The Gazette reporting on drunken drivers earning at least their fourth OWI convictions or arrests. This Category 5 hurricane maybe has weakened to a Category 4, but it’s still a dangerous situation.

The most optimistic review of our proposal came from Spreitzer. He called it a “creative idea that differs from other bills that have been introduced,” adding that it was worth “seriously considering.” He said his support would depend on the answers to several questions, including whether “other states (or counties) tried a proposal like this, and is there evidence that it works as well as or better than other proposals for addressing the problem.”

Spreitzer noted alcohol addiction treatment would have to be part of any proposal like ours, and we enthusiastically agree.

Cost would be a concern, Sprietzer said, a sentiment echoed by both Ringhand and Kolste. “Considering the reluctance of the Republican-led Legislature to increase funding for public safety, it is highly unlikely that this proposal would ever see the light of day,” Ringhand said.

Kolste mentioned some other, less costly steps that the state might consider, such as using sobriety check points, while acknowledging the idea “has been met with concern of invasion of privacy.”

Of course, there is no easy answer to ending drunken driving, but the Legislature’s approach over the years has been to adopt half-measures that don’t get at the root of the problem. The point of our proposal is to encourage the Legislature to take more substantive steps toward stopping repeat offenders. It’s time to think differently about ways to address this state’s drunken driving epidemic.

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