By Judy Keen
GRAFTON, Wis. - Almost every seat at the bar in Redheads Tavern is occupied. Noon is more than an hour away.
Most patrons ended their overnight shifts at local factories a couple hours ago and are enjoying conversation and $1 glasses of beer before heading home. Nobody here thinks some new proposals to toughen the state's drunken-driving laws are necessary, and no one is defensive about ingrained drinking traditions in Wisconsin, which ranks behind only the District of Columbia in alcohol consumption and binge drinking.
"There are drinking problems everywhere, not just in Wisconsin," says Jenny Hannert, 55, who works at a plastics factory. "We just embrace the fact that we like to drink."
Others at the bar note that the state, still home to many breweries, was settled by German, Irish and Polish immigrants for whom a drink at day's end was a reward for hard work. On cold winter days such as this one, they say, there's not much else to do.
Efforts by state legislators in Madison to crack down on drinking and driving, they agree, are an attempt to curtail personal freedoms. They're not sure new laws would make any difference. "They just need to enforce the ones we've already got," Hannert says.
Charlie Kroening, 50, doesn't think current laws are fair, either. Two drunken-driving citations he got more than 20 years ago should be expunged from his record, he says, but "they don't ever go away."
State Rep. Jim Ott and state Sen. Alberta Darling, both Republicans, disagree. They're trying again this year to pass legislation that would criminalize first drunken-driving offenses, make a third conviction a felony and establish mandatory minimum sentences for drunken drivers who cause crashes.
"We're the only state where a first offense is equivalent to a traffic ticket," Darling says. "That, to me, is sending the wrong message. We have to have this conversation in Wisconsin where we seriously talk about the culture of drinking and driving."
In the past decade, Ott says, "We've had about 2,000 alcohol-related fatalities, about 200 per year. ... There is too much drunk driving in Wisconsin."
Statewide, 225 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2011 and 2,984 were injured. Of the 28,213 convictions statewide in 2011, 38.6% of drivers were repeat offenders.
Grafton, population 11,481, is in Ozaukee County, where one person died and 57 were injured in alcohol-related crashes in 2011. In that year, 64.5% of the county's 155 alcohol-related driving convictions were for repeat offenders - the highest percentage of any of Wisconsin's 72 counties.
Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol supports criminalizing first drunken-driving offenses and making third offenses felonies. Tougher penalties, he says, are "the only tool we have." Gerol is president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association but says his views don't necessarily reflect those of the association.
Gerol says half the cases his office handles stem from abuse of alcohol or controlled substances. He warns that more stringent laws would increase that workload and tax him and his two-lawyer staff. "You need to add resources," he says. "It is a need, but like every need there's a cost."
Cost concerns helped derail similar legislation introduced last year by Darling and Ott. A state analysis concluded that making a third drunken-driving conviction a felony and other proposals would add millions of dollars to state court and corrections costs.
Ott says this year he and Darling will introduce six bills, each with a different drunken-driving provision, to improve the odds that some of their proposals will pass. "We're not trying to outlaw drinking," he says. "What we're trying to do is say, 'If you do drink, don't get behind the wheel.'"
Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, which has more than 5,000 members, says the organization will study this year's bills when they are introduced. The group supported the state's last significant changes to drunken-driving laws, he says. In 2009, the Legislature made fourth offenses felonies if they occur within five years of a previous offense.
"We are responsible members of the community," Stenger says. "We want to work with governments to make a difference."
Creating deterrents for first-time offenders is key, Darling says. In other states, "there's much more of a stigma on a first offense, so people are very afraid to get caught," she says. "When you're sitting in a bar with friends having a good time, you often don't see the tragic flip side."
Hannert thinks criminalizing first offenses would go too far. "Anybody," she says, "can make one mistake."