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State Rep. Jim Ott and state Sen. Alberta Darling have been waging an uphill battle over the years in an effort to persuade Wisconsin to get tougher on drunken driving, up to and including first offenses. The Republican legislators seem to have found an ally in Tony Evers, the new Democratic governor.

Evers said during his campaign that he’s open to criminalizing first offenses, the Associated Press reported Sunday. He reiterated that statement days before his inauguration.

“We have to find ways to make that first offense more meaningful to the offenders so they don’t offend again or don’t offend the first time,” Evers said. “Whether that’s making it a felony or not, I’m not sure.”

We don’t think it should be a felony, but we’d like to see a drunken driving first offense become a misdemeanor. Right now it’s not much different than a speeding ticket in Wisconsin, in that it’s a civil offense. Ours is the only state that punishes drunken driving so lightly.

The state ranks 20th in population but has ranked among the top 15 states for drunken-driving arrests every year from 2005 through 2017, according to the latest statistics compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. From 2005 through 2009, the state ranked in the top 10 for operating-while-intoxicated arrests.

In light of Evers’ supportive remarks, Ott, R-Mequon, and Darling, R-River Hills, have reintroduced their measure to make a first offense a misdemeanor, with a provision that offenders could seek expungement if they avoid a second offense for five years.

We support the expungement idea. If you don’t reoffend, having it stricken from your record seems appropriate. We’d also be open to tougher penalties for a first offender having a blood-alcohol level more than double the 0.08 legal limit.

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, told the AP that the Ott-Darling bill is a non-starter. Criminalizing a first offense would saddle people with a criminal record that could affect their job prospects for five years, he said.

We’ve got a problem with drinking and driving in this state.

Here’s hoping Ott, Darling and Evers can persuade members of their respective parties to recognize the seriousness of drunken driving, even on a first offense.

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