Mothers Against Drunk Driving, at long last, has a reason to feel somewhat at home in Wisconsin. After a long period of mounting public indignation over the utter laxity of the state’s drunken driving laws, legislators took off their little kid gloves and strengthened enforcement and fines for drunken driving. But children’s hand-wear or not, the state government still managed to act like a gaggle of pre-pubescents in the drafting of their latest attempt.
Drunken drivers who get caught now have to face, among other things, ignition locks for all repeat offenders or first time offenders with a Blood Alcohol Content of above .15, felony charges for fourth offenses and misdemeanor charges for first offenses if a minor is in the vehicle. On a moral level, then, the bill seems to be a slam dunk case against gratuitous chugging at the expense of toddlers.
The new restrictions were so appealing, in fact, that they passed unanimously in the Senate and had only one dissenting vote in the Assembly. Rep. Marlin Schneider became potentially one of the largest buzzkillers in recent history when he was the only member of either body to cast a vote of nay. Stating harsher enforcement had done nothing to curb drunken driving, and further adding that the current legislation would only crowd jails, Schneider refused to get on the bandwagon and subsequently? cast his dissent. Any reasonable analysis of the voting tally, along with a consideration of the issue at hand, would conclude Schneider is either a Neanderthal or a frat boy who stumbled into the legislature by mistake.
However, even among those who made up the other 126 votes in the Senate and Assembly, there were significant inquietudes as to how the bill would be set up and, on a more basic level, financed. Madison’s own Fred Risser had qualms after a provision to pay for the bill through liquor taxes was taken out. To Risser’s dismay, instead of a liquor tax, the issue of financing was dismissed by raising financial penalties for those convicted of drunken driving. And while, in a statistical vacuum, charging those who commit a crime for the burden they place on society may be valid, such a simplistic and inadequate solution adheres to a conceptualization of justice more commonly advocated by Nickelodeon than staid fifty-year-old men with control over billions of dollars. As Risser lamented in an interview, many offenders have difficulty paying the fine as it is, and society is often forced to foot the prison bill for those who default on their OWI fines. Additionally, statewide liquor taxes, even in an era of chronic deficits, have not been raised in years. How increasing the schedule of fines will ameliorate the problem was left to the vagaries of the future. In any case, Risser’s opposition to the removal of the liquor tax should remind our chronically incompetent legislative branch that slavishly reenacting “Law and Order” often complicates the most obvious of good ideas.
As for the bill itself, it is projected to cost $82 million dollars per year. This, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out, is three times the original projected cost, and “far more than new fees included in the bill would cover.” But apparently money grows on trees when throwing people in jail is concerned. Whether another means of paying for the new penalties arises is irrelevant. The truth is that the legislature had an opportunity to take a step of relative courage in the form of raising taxes, but decided to put responsibility on the back burner and just go Steven Seagal on drunk drivers instead.
However, even if the objections to a given piece of legislation are valid, people want anybody who takes an inebriated cruise over the median of I-90 to go to jail. And perhaps they should. But no matter how many of Wisconsin’s infantile legislators acted on their haste to punish an easy target, “everybody else was doing it,” is a mentality better suited for the playpen than civil government.
Sam Clegg ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in economics.