Josh Zepnick has a deeply personal reason for proposing two controversial laws affecting the sale of alcohol in Wisconsin.
"The guy who killed my sister had been drinking all day, on Sept. 8, 1990," says the Democratic state Assemblyman from Milwaukee. Afterward, he looked for ways to make a difference. "I became interested in urban policy and how public safety is affected."
First elected to the state Assembly in 2002, Zepnick has focused on reducing the legal amount of blood alcohol concentration and increasing penalties for drunken driving.
"My sister's life," he says, "was taken by a guy who received a five-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter and five years for leaving the scene of the accident, leaving my sister at the side of the road to die."
Now Zepnick is also trying to regulate what happens on the other side of the bar. He's proposed a bill that would require retail bartenders to be absolutely sober while on the job and another to prevent taverns from offering "all-you-can-drink" specials for a set price.
These specials, he says, "tend to be targeted at areas with a lot of young folks." He calls it "just ridiculous" to charge $10 or $20 so people can drink as much as they want. "It is a recipe for disaster."
Madison bar owner Hawk Schenkel sees it differently.
"I feel he is penalizing people who don't have much money," says Schenkel, owner of Hawk's Bar & Grill on State Street. "It is the same as laws banning sales on single cans of beer, but they can sell single bottles of microbrew. That is a class issue."
Schenkel also objects to the proposed ban on bartender drinking: "A bartender who does a shot or two over five or six hours with a customer is not intoxicated. Zepnick is using a sledgehammer when he needs a scalpel."
But Schenkel would agree that bartenders should not be allowed to serve with a blood alcohol above that permitted for drivers - .08. "They shouldn't be able to bartend if they can't drive," he says. "Police could enforce it with a breathalyzer."
Zepnick thinks excessive drinking by bartenders is "a pattern in certain places," even though bartenders are asked to make sure patrons don't have too much to drink: "The driving public should have some sense that the people overseeing establishments are sober."
As with all legislation, Zepnick's proposed bills are subject to change.
Already, he's agreed to tweak his ban on all-you-can-drink specials to address concerns that it could affect fundraisers for nonprofit groups or wine-tasting events. Consequently, the Wisconsin Grocers Association decided to support the bill.
And he's willing to compromise on his bill requiring absolute sobriety for bartenders, after hearing bar owners testify at a Capitol hearing that it would be difficult to enforce and could prohibit on-site training of bartenders, who are expected to know how the products they sell taste.
Bill Rogers, owner of the Malt House on East Washington Avenue, says the bill would prohibit him from having a beer in his own bar. "We have 18 drafts and 150 types of bottles of beer. I buy them, but bartenders are the ones who sell them. Each time a bartender comes on, there might be one or two new products. They need to sample so they can properly recommend to customers."
Julie Coquard, vice president and marketing director for Wollersheim Winery, says the winery has quite a few people on staff with operator's licenses who have gone through server training. "My husband, who is also the winemaker, has to be able to taste it, and staff training is very important," she says. "We have tastings."
A third bill now before the Legislature would prohibit persons under 18 from drinking with parents in licensed establishments, as is now allowed.
"This is a tradition in Wisconsin, but this drinking has a price," says John Vander Meer, aide to Rep. Kim Hixson (D-Whitewater), the bill's author. "People who begin to drink before 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent."
Hixson's bill, which would still allow 18- to 21-year-olds to drink in bars if their parents are present, has angered some radio talk-show types but appears to be getting a warm legislative reception. Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison), chair of the Assembly Urban and Local Affairs Committee that heard testimony on the bills, is surprised at the lack of opposition.
"I thought that people would think if something happens within a family, it's nobody else's business," she says. "But everybody seemed to think it didn't make much sense for underage kids to be drinking. I was surprised at the bipartisan attitude."
The bill is even supported by the Wisconsin Tavern League.
Julia Sherman, who formerly worked with the American Medical Association on alcohol issues, notes that only two states - Wisconsin and Texas now let people take their child of any age into a licensed establishment to drink. She sees that as part of a larger problem.
"Wisconsin," she says, "leads the country in binge drinking, underage drinking and alcohol consumption."
Zepnick believes there'll be "a bipartisan push" for alcohol law changes in the current session. But he knows that's not enough; he also wants to see a change in the state's drinking culture.
"I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee, in a German and Eastern European culture heavy on beer and other drinking," he says. "I enjoy a drink. But there are health, mental health and behavior ramifications; and, when driving a car, there are public safety ramifications."
Lisa Maroney, state director of legislative relations for UW Health, is encouraged by the bills being proposed: "Some may pass and some not, but it is a good thing - starting and continuing the public awareness and dialogue about where Wisconsin is regarding the effects of alcohol."
Berceau, meanwhile, thinks the state still is not tough enough: "I would like a bill increasing the penalty for first-time OWI. It is stunning that it is not a misdemeanor."
Zepnick agrees, but thinks this may not be possible at present because legislators are concerned about the higher costs of tougher penalties.
He adds that, sadly, none of the three bills being considered would have changed what happened 19 years ago.
"The guy who killed my sister was at a church festival," he says. "It was not an all-you-can-drink, but he stayed all day."
And that's a recipe for the kind of disaster that keeps on happening in Wisconsin.