New Drunken Driving Law Under The Influence Of Alcohol Industry Contributions

May 10, 2010

Madison - The cost of tougher penalties and treatment programs in a new drunken driving law effective in July is not paid for because the legislature refused to increase liquor or beer taxes opposed by the alcohol industry – one of the largest special interest contributors to legislative campaigns, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis shows.

The industry, which includes liquor, beer and wine manufacturers, distributors, stores and taverns, was one of the largest special interest contributors in 2008 and 2009 to current legislators. The industry contributed $293,892 in 2008 to help legislators get elected, ranking it third among 97 special interest groups. Last year legislators received another $115,191 from the industry – fifth highest among special interest groups – while numerous bills to change drunken driving laws and increase the beer tax were being considered.

Over the past 10 years, the liquor industry has contributed $2.53 million – fifth highest among about 100 special interest categories – to all legislative candidates and leadership committees.

Most of the top recipients of liquor industry campaign contributions in 2009 were legislative leaders who control which bills survive or die and their four legislative leadership committees which are used to milk powerful special interests for contributions spent at election time (Table).

Topping the list of recipients of alcohol industry contributions in 2009 was the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee which got $17,500 from the industry. Assembly Democrats control that house 52-46-1 and rejected raising beer or liquor taxes to pay for law enforcement and alcohol treatment costs. Its counterpart, the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, received $13,800. Democratic Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan accepted $3,000 from liquor interests and Republican Minority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald got $3,700.

The State Senate Democratic Committee accepted $9,893 and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate took $5,850 from liquor interests. The Senate is controlled 18-15 by Democrats. Republican Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald got $4,950 from the industry while Democratic Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker received only $853. The Senate opposed increasing the beer tax but briefly floated a liquor tax increase which was dumped in the compromise bill with the Assembly that passed in December.

Aside from funding, critics say the new law is tepid because Wisconsin drunken driving penalties remain behind those of most other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures says Wisconsin is the only state where first offense drunken driving is a traffic offense and not a criminal misdemeanor in all cases, and Wisconsin and North Dakota are the only states where drunken driving is not a felony in all cases until the fifth offense. Wisconsin is also one of only 12 states that do not allow roadside sobriety checkpoints.

Another drunken driving proposal, Assembly Bill 547, which would have criminalized first offense drunken driving and legalized sobriety checkpoints, was bounced from committee to committee and died when the legislature adjourned its 2009-10 floor session in mid-April.

The new law raises about $12 million a year to pay for incarceration, probation and treatment costs by increasing various fees and license reinstatement costs for those convicted of drunken driving. However, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the annual cost of the bill will be between $47 million and $82 million. Costs not paid by the state would be borne by county taxpayers.

Efforts by some Democratic legislators to increase beer and liquor taxes were turned away. One plan would have increased the liquor tax 50 cents a liter – a move that would have made Wisconsin’s liquor tax the 13th lowest in the nation. Right now Wisconsin has the 10th lowest liquor tax in the country.

Another effort to increase the beer tax by $8 a barrel or 6.5 cents per gallon – the first increase since 1969 – also died. Wisconsin currently has the third lowest beer tax in the country.

Together the beer and alcohol tax increases would have raised an estimated $65 million a year to pay for increased law enforcement and alcohol treatment costs.

Alcohol Industry Contributions In 2009 To Current Legislators

Name Office Party Amount
Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee A D $17,500
Republican Assembly Campaign Committee A R $13,800
Davis, Brett H A80 R $13,000
State Senate Democratic Committee S D $9,893
Committee to Elect a Republican Senate S R $5,850
Vinehout, Kathleen S31 D $5,629
Fitzgerald, Scott S13 R $4,950
Fitzgerald, Jeff A39 R $3,700
Sheridan, Mike A44 D $3,000
Hopper, Randy S18 R $2,500
Huebsch, Mike A94 R $2,400
Lehman, John S21 D $2,300
Kreitlow, Patrick J S23 D $2,300
Kleefisch, Joel A38 R $2,250
Vos, Robin A63 R $1,950
Petrowski, Jerry A86 R $1,944
Colon, Pedro A08 D $1,900
Erpenbach, Jon S27 D $1,555
Soletski, Jim A88 D $1,250
Staskunas, Tony A15 D $1,200
Shilling, Jennifer A95 D $1,000
Danou, Chris A91 D $1,000
Brooks , Ed A50 R $1,000
Sullivan, Jim S05 D $1,000
Nelson, Tom A05 D $984
Vukmir, Leah A14 R $950
Barca, Peter A64 D $900
Kramer, Bill A97 R $900
Decker, Russ S29 D $853
Radcliffe, Mark A A92 D $785
Wirch, Robert S22 D $700
Meyer, Dan A34 R $700
Petersen, Kevin David A40 R $500
Clark, Fred A42 D $500
Hansen, Dave S30 D $469
Kanavas, Theodore J S33 R $350
Jorgensen, Andy A37 D $349
Hixson, Kim A43 D $300
Sherman, Gary A74 D $300
Bies, Garey D A01 R $250
Knodl, Dan A24 R $250
Milroy, Nick A73 D $250
Zigmunt, Ted A02 D $230
Darling, Alberta S08 R $200
Murtha, John A29 R $200
Mursau, Jeffrey L A36 R $200
Dexter, Kristen A68 D $200
Honadel, Mark A21 R $150
Gunderson, Scott A83 R $150
Schultz, Dale S17 R $100
Lassa, Julie S24 D $100
Kerkman, Samantha A66 R $100
Nygren, John A89 R $100
Ripp, Keith A47 R $100
Roys, Kelda Helen A81 D $100
Leibham, Joseph S09 R $100
TOTAL $115,191