Wisconsin State Capitol (copy)

Tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers, once a tough sell to Wisconsin lawmakers, have won widespread backing in the state Capitol in recent weeks.

But with stronger penalties now a step from becoming law, legislators have not addressed how they’ll pay for more prison time for repeat offenders — a figure that could top $100 million annually.

The Assembly passed a bill Tuesday to make all fourth-time drunken driving offenses felonies and boost maximum penalties for subsequent convictions. The bill passed the Senate last month and cleared the Legislature with just a single dissenting vote.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker, Laurel Patrick, said Wednesday that he plans to sign the bill.

A fiscal estimate from the state Department of Corrections pegs the bill’s cost as “indeterminate,” noting the many variables tied to such a prediction. Some, such as judicial sentencing of convicted drunken drivers, are out of the hands of state agencies or lawmakers.

But the estimate gives eye-popping figures for what the bill could cost the state. It says an influx of drunken-driving convicts into Wisconsin’s prison system could cost the department between $97.9 million and $129 million a year in additional operating costs.

Those figures don’t include the potential cost to local county jails that also could have to house more inmates.

Supporters of the bill contest the reliability of those figures. They say harsher penalties could deter some from choosing to drink and drive, while noting the bill would allow judges to collect larger fines from convicted drunken drivers.

The last time Wisconsin lawmakers tightened drunken driving penalties, in 2009, they increased fees to offset the changes. No such changes were included as part of this measure.

Influx of inmates expected

The Department of Corrections estimate says the bill could boost the state’s prison population by more than 1,000 inmates in the first year after its enactment. The inmate increase could be more than 3,600 over the long term.

Additional costs also would come from building new facilities to house the extra inmates, according to the estimate.

It says the department would need to build three new facilities to house all the new inmates in the first year alone.

Twelve new facilities — at an estimated cost of $157 million — would be needed to accommodate all of the additional inmates after the law had been in place for several years, the estimate says.

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The bill’s Assembly sponsor, Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, dismissed the estimate in a Tuesday news conference.

He said it fails to account for his belief that tougher penalties would, over time, discourage people from drinking and driving.

“That fiscal estimate is an overestimate,” Ott told reporters. “My feeling is, there’s going to be less convictions because there is going to be a deterrent effect.

“To say this is going to have a big fiscal impact — I think drunk driving has a big fiscal impact on Wisconsin.”

Supporters of the bill also say its impact on state finances won’t be immediate. The measure takes effect in 2017, meaning any impact on the current two-year budget, which runs through June 2017, would be minimal.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has not assessed the bill’s impact on the state budget. That’s because it was never referred to the legislative Joint Finance Committee — a requirement that, under state law, applies only to bills that appropriate money or deal with taxation.

State easy on repeat offenders

The last major change to drunken driving laws came in 2009. That change made drunken driving a felony on the fourth offense if it’s committed within five years of the third offense. Otherwise, it’s a felony on the fifth offense.

Since then, bills to crack down further on repeat offenders have been proposed. In 2013, Ott and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, proposed making drunken driving a felony on the third offense. But that bill died after lawmakers balked at the cost.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, in a 2013 statement to the State Journal, questioned if “spending hundreds of millions of dollars is the best way to prevent people from driving drunk.”

Wisconsin laws go easy on repeat drunken drivers, compared to how they’re treated in other states. Most states are quicker to treat repeat drunken driving offenses as felonies, according to the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

As of June 2015, 34 states treated drunken driving offenses as a felony after four or less convictions, according to a MADD publication. Three other states, Alabama, Arkansas and Wyoming, had laws that mirror Wisconsin.

Only five states were more lenient: Washington, which made drunken driving a felony on the fifth offense in all cases, and Maryland, Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which did not have felony laws for repeat drunken-driving convictions.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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