Wisconsin Senate approves increased penalties for reckless drivers

Democrats used the day's session to call attention to what they described as an inactive GOP-led Legislature

The Wisconsin State Senate is seen from above from a balcony.
The state Senate holds debate on the floor Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Fines and jail time for reckless driving offenses would increase under a bill approved by lawmakers in the Wisconsin state Senate Wednesday.

The body gaveled in and out in less than an hour. Before the session, Democratic lawmakers criticized the day’s business as illustrative of an inactive GOP-led Legislature.

Senators approved a bill by a bipartisan vote of 30-2 that would increase the range of fines imposed on people charged with reckless driving offenses. The legislation had previously been approved by the Wisconsin state Assembly.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

It will now go to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. Evers previously signed into law a provision to allow municipalities to impound vehicles used in reckless driving offenses, and has signaled that this issue is a priority of his.

Under the legislation approved Wednesday, a first reckless driving offense would incur a fine of between $50 and $400, up from $25 to $200. Subsequent offenses would increase from a range of $100 to $1,000, up from $50 to $500. The bill waives a statute of limitations for incurring a “repeat offender” penalty. Repeat offenders could also be sentenced to jail time.

The maximum prison sentence for reckless drivers who cause “great bodily harm” would also increase, from three-and-a-half years to six years.

An Evers spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Democrats denounce speed of business in the Capitol

Speaking to reporters before the session, Democratic leaders denounced what they described as a slow pace of business in the Capitol in general.

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, called the day’s calendar “anemic and skeletal.” She called on Republican lawmakers to move forward legislation about public schools, child care, health care and prescription drug access.

“Our colleagues in this building are running scared. Their platform is wildly unpopular by the majority of Wisconsinites,” Agard said of GOP lawmakers. “And with accountability knocking on the door, the Republicans are choosing to do nothing rather than putting forward their typically offensive and unwelcome legislation.”

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, used this weekend’s Earth Day — a holiday born in Wisconsin — to argue that Wisconsin is being outpaced by its neighbors when it comes to passing legislation.

“Our neighbors to the east and the west — Michigan Senate and Minnesota House — passed more bills this January than the past six Januarys combined,” she said. “In Wisconsin, it is the strangest thing. It’s like we’re in the upside down, a world that moves so slowly. We cannot even do simple things like declare official days official until that day is in the past. We’re going to be recognizing Earth Day after Mother’s Day in this next month.”

Democratic leaders also denounced the slow pace of confirming Evers’ nominations to public offices.

“We would like to also point out that there are a number of appointments that are outstanding yet, and that we need to continue working in a bipartisan way to make sure in the name of good governance that we are fulfilling one of the most important responsibilities of the state Senate,” Agard said.

Senators approved 28 nominations on Wednesday, including of Peter Barca as Secretary of Revenue, and Randy Romanski as Secretary of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

Romanski was first confirmed to that position in 2020, 15 months after he’d originally taken the post. He replaced Brad Pfaff, a prior Evers nominee who Senate Republicans voted not to confirm — effectively firing — in 2019. Senate Republicans declined to confirm nearly 180 of Evers’ appointments in his first term.

The nominations Wednesday received unanimous approval.

The vote on the reckless driving bill also received overwhelming bipartisan support, including yes votes from all but two of the body’s 11 Democrats. The two no votes came from Hesselbein and Chris Larson, of Milwaukee.