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Legislators debate drunk-driving penalties

Two GOP state legislators are pressing on with their clampdown on drunk driving - even though some lawmakers have balked at the cost of handling those offenders. Assembly Republican Jim Ott of Mequon and Senate finance chair Alberta Darling of River Hills are promoting a half dozen bills.

Ott introduced them Feb. 11. All first-time drunk drivers would have to appear in court, even if they just get ticketed instead of criminally charged. Wisconsin is the only state in which first-time OWI is not a crime, except when kids are in the vehicle. Many who get cited pay their fines without having to appear in court.

Ott's package would make the first offense a crime if the driver's blood alcohol content is .15 or higher, with automatic jail time. There would mandatory minimum sentences for OWI cases involving injuries and deaths - and fatal crashes would require a 10-year term.

Also, drivers would lose their vehicles for the third or higher offense. Ott and Darling have pressed the issue for some time. But even some of their GOP colleagues said the added detention costs would be too much in the midst of a tight state budget.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving did not have an immediate comment. That group has pushed for even tighter O-W-I restrictions - like sobriety checkpoints.

Governor Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos say they support a crackdown on drunk drivers. But they stopped short of endorsing the package of bills introduced yesterday by their fellow Republicans.

Darling asked what it says about victims and the state's intolerance for drunk drivers when quote, "not only do we give you a do-over, we give you three of them." Speaker Vos says there needs to be an agreement on the how to best use state resources to fight drunk driving.

Walker's office would only say it will evaluate whatever gets to his desk. Ott and Darling also want to make all first-time OWI suspects at least appear before a judge.