It’s no secret that Wisconsinites like to drink. Wisconsin’s drunken driving laws are also among the most lenient in the country.
At the heart of both of those realities, in addition to the state’s Germanic heritage, is the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a lobbying and industry group that bills itself as “the largest trade association in the United States to exclusively represent the interests of licensed beverage retailers.”
State lawmakers have periodically sought to toughen penalties for drunken drivers, but those efforts — even when they appeared to have overwhelming support initially — have typically failed when the Tavern League has opposed them.
“It’s just a foregone conclusion: ‘Hey, is the Tavern League going to be OK with this?'” said Frank Harris, the director of state government affairs at Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “If not, then it probably doesn’t have a chance of passing.”
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Harris said he has worked with alcohol companies like Anheuser-Busch to support legislation that would strengthen penalties or create more requirements for people convicted of driving over the legal limit. He said he assumes the Tavern League also wants to end drunken driving but has a different method of getting there.
Staff from the Tavern League did not answer questions about why it opposed legislation in the past or what measures it might support, instead pointing to an initiative to provide rides for bar patrons.
“For over 25 years we have been providing free rides home to our customers through our SafeRide Program,” Tavern League president Keith Kern said in a statement.
He said the group “has consistently supported efforts to make our roads safer by targeting high BAC offenders as well as repeat offenders,” a statement contradicted by the group’s recent history of opposing legislation designed to curb drunken driving.
In the 2019-2020 legislative session, the group spent over $250,000 on lobbying efforts, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, though much of their activity didn’t pertain to drunken driving legislation. In the latest session, the group spent over $184,000 on lobbying efforts, not including spending from later this year.
One of the measures the Tavern League opposed in the 2019-2020 session, 2019 Senate Bill 384, would have required courts to limit many people convicted of an OWI to operating vehicles equipped with an ignition interlock device. The bipartisan measure passed the Senate but didn’t receive a vote in the Assembly.
Another measure the group opposed, 2019 Senate Bill 331, would have prohibited people convicted of driving a vehicle while intoxicated from operating off-road vehicles without any restrictions. The bipartisan measure received unanimous support from a Senate committee but didn’t receive a floor vote in either chamber.
Such opposition helps explain how Wisconsin remains the only state in the country where a first drunken driving offense isn’t a crime in most cases (it becomes a misdemeanor or felony, however, if there’s a passenger under 16 or if the driver injures someone). And Wisconsin is one of seven states that have no statewide requirements regarding ignition interlock devices, which ensure a vehicle only starts if the driver passes a breathalyzer test, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More than 770,000 Wisconsinites had at least one operating while intoxicated, or OWI, conviction as of the end of 2021, according to the Department of Transportation. The average blood alcohol concentration for people cited with an OWI last year was 0.15%, twice the legal limit.
“We need increased legislation from Madison, we need better enforcement on the local level,” said State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers. “I think more people understand the problem of drinking and driving, definitely more than 20 years ago, let’s say.”
Wirch said Wisconsin needed to “tighten up the laws” around drunken driving but blamed state Republicans, who hold a majority in the state legislature, for stalling several bills.
“Many of these bills are introduced with a lot of fanfare, yet the majority party does not give them a hearing in committee or a vote on the floor,” Wirch said. “And I think that has to change.”
In an interview, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t recall why the two 2019 measures didn’t come up for a vote in his chamber.
He said the Tavern League doesn’t have the power to ensure a bill it opposes doesn’t get a vote but said the organization employs effective lobbyists with good arguments.
“If you want to pass drunk driving legislation, you can just write it yourself and throw it out there and hope it works, or you can try to bring together (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and the Tavern League and whoever else is an interested party and say, ‘Let’s generate a consensus and find an answer everybody can live with,'” he said.
Republicans have drafted many bills that have gone nowhere.
One of them, Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, has written measures opposed by the Tavern League in the past, including the 2019 measure that would have prohibited people convicted of an OWI from operating off-road vehicles without restrictions.
Jacque said he’s working on several drinking-and-driving-related bills he wants to see passed this upcoming legislative session.
One would allow people to obtain an ignition interlock restricted license, which would allow people with OWI convictions to drive anywhere as long as they can prove they are sober. Such a license would allow more freedom than occupational licenses, which only allow drivers to go certain places, and wouldn’t take as long to receive, Jacque said.
Another measure Jacque is proposing would change the word “accident” in statutes that reference drinking and driving to “crash.” The change would only be symbolic, Jacque said, but “words matter.”
Jacque is also writing a bill to add Wisconsin to the Driver’s License Compact, an agreement between states to share data on motorists’ records, including speeding and drunken driving offenses. Member states use the compact to treat a driver’s offense in another state as if it were committed in that state. Wisconsin is one of only five states that don’t belong to the compact, according to the Council of State Governments.
Asked whether the Tavern League would support those measures, Kern of the Tavern League demurred, saying only, “we will continue to work with legislators to address this important issue in Wisconsin.”
Jacque said he’s not aware of any opposition from the Tavern League to any of the proposals he hopes to pass this coming session.
“I see no reason why all of these pieces of legislation won’t be able to have very strong bipartisan support,” he said.
Kenosha News reporter Joe States contributed to this report.