Drunk driving, voucher school reporting raise money issues

Money issues are bouncing around two current hot issues for state government: reform of drunken-driving laws and accountability-reporting for voucher schools.

The public and some editorial pages are pushing for tougher laws to fight drunken driving, and the politicians seem ready to get on board. But there are substantial costs for almost all of the ideas in the Legislature.

Earlier this year the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that one set of ideas could cost an additional $250 million. The Department of Corrections also estimates it would need to spend $236 million to build additional facilities to house an increase of convicted drunken drivers sent to prison.

Proponents discount the idea of significant increases in state-agency costs. They contend tougher penalties will dramatically reduce the number of drunks behind the whee.

"The deterrent effect needs to be taken into account; otherwise there's no point in doing it," said State Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, a leader in the push for tougher penalties.

Requiring everyone arrested for drunken driving to appear in court and tougher penalties will increase the workloads in courthouses across the state. Some of the time spent behind bars will come in county jails.

County officials want to know who is going to pay for the increased workloads in the courts and jails. The changes in judicial procedures and incarceration will cost money at the county level.

Additionally, county government leaders want the Legislature to pay for their increased costs including prosecutors. Otherwise, the burden is likely to end up in higher county property tax bills, they say.

Wisconsin has a reputation of being a hard-drinking state. It is the only one which doesn't criminalize a first offense, instead treating it similar to a speeding ticket. More than 12,000 establishments sell booze. The state was one of the last to increase the legal drinking age to 21.

Among the legislative ideas are mandatory time of six months to three years in prison if a person were injured in an accident, requiring court appearances for all accused of drunken driving, and allowing the seizure of a vehicle involved in such accidents.

The topic of money also has popped up in the legislative efforts to get additional information about the educational success of students who attend private schools with state financial help through vouchers. This year the Legislature expanded the programs. The vouchers are $7,210 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,856 for high school.

The latest proposal would test every public, charter or voucher school in five categories. A series of consequences would flow to schools which under-perform for a three-year period, including removal from the voucher program.

A spokesman for the Milwaukee Diocese Catholic schools told a legislative hearing that reporting scores of voucher students could give a distorted view of a school's performance. On the other hand, testing all students in the private schools would be too costly, she said.

The private schools may need to find money to do that testing. Voucher school advocates are expected to press for further expansion in the next biennial budget. The Legislature might be reluctant to give a blank check to the program without the testing results.

State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said voucher schools need to understand accountability is the price that comes from increased use of public tax money. "Welcome to the public arena," Cullen told private school leaders.

Money plays a big role in that public arena.

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