Wisconsin Cracking Down on Drive-Offs

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Wisconsin Cracking Down on Drive-Offs

MILWAUKEE -- If the governor gives his OK, gas stations across the state will start posting threatening signs that read something like this: "In Wisconsin, if you don't pay for your gas, you'll be walking."

The Legislature is sending to the governor Assembly Bill 232, which would let judges suspend the driver's licenses of people who steal gas more than once. Violators also could be fined up to $200 for their first offense and have to pay additional damages and attorney fees, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A second bill, AB 570, would increase the penalty for stealing a grocery cart from $50 to $500, under its latest version.

Proponents say the bills will help gas stations and grocery stores deter two chronic and costly forms of theft. But critics say the bills go too far and pander to two industries that give generously to legislators' campaigns. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle said Wednesday he hadn't reviewed the bills and didn't know if he would sign them.

AB 232 cleared the Assembly on a 71-24 vote last month and passed the Senate 26-6 last week. According to an industry survey, 319 Wisconsin gas retailers estimated that more than 18,000 drive-offs occur each year. "The police don't have time to drop everything and run after somebody who steals $5 or $10 of gas," said Rep. Becky Weber, R-Green Bay, a lead sponsor of AB 232. "With these mechanisms in place, there will be more of a deterrent. Just having that threat out there seems to help to save hundreds of thousands of dollars."

But Rep. Tom Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, doesn't think judges should be able to take away driver's licenses for non-driving offenses such as gas theft. "If you drive up and steal someone's pumpkin without paying for it," Hebl said, "can we take their driver's license away for that?"

Hebl said both bills reflect how much lobbying power the gasoline and grocery industries have at the Capitol. "Some of this is the cost of doing business," he said of minor thefts. "I don't know why we should single out gas stations for special treatment."

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign that tracks political contributions, had stronger words. "These two bills are flagrant examples of lawmakers pandering to special interests that are contributing a heck of a lot of money" to their campaigns, he said.

Brandon Scholz of the Wisconsin Grocers Association said that's "hooey." AB 570 is simply a way to help grocery stores deter thefts of carts that he said cost between $150 and $250 each. The current $50 fine isn't taken seriously by thieves, he said.