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Boozy businesses join in opposition to Wisconsin's 'alcohol czar' bill

Thursday, February 15, 2018   (0 Comments)
Journal Sentinel

Jason Stein & Kathy Flanigan



MADISON - A growing coalition of boozy businesses — from small distilleries to mega-brewer MillerCoors — is opposing a proposal to create a state "alcohol czar" to toughen enforcement of state liquor laws. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has kept his distance from the measure heading to the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Commerce for a hearing Thursday.

Meanwhile, many small brewers and distillers like Brian Sammons, founder of Twisted Path Distillery in Milwaukee, have expressed concern or outright opposition to the bill. 

"Small, craft beverage producers are one of the fastest growing, most vibrant sectors of Wisconsin’s manufacturing economy. I don’t understand how anyone claiming to be pro small business or pro job growth could possibly support legislation like this," said Sammons, who is also president of the Wisconsin Distillers Guild.

William Glass, president of the Brewing Projekt in Eau Claire, said small brewers are open to compromises but feel shut out of the process by lawmakers like lead sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). 

"We want to see this thing to die but what we really want to see is something happen. We want to talk," said Glass, who is also president of the Brewers Guild. "Enforcement to us means something different than it does to retailers. All we've been asking for is a seat at the dang table."

But at least one major Wisconsin business — MillerCoors — has opposed the creation of an Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement led by a political appointee, saying that the state's current enforcement system is working well. 

Senate Bill 801 has brought out some of the heaviest hitters in state politics. Less than a month ago, Fitzgerald's brother, former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, signed up to lobby for the state's wholesale wine and liquor sellers on topics including this type of legislation.

Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald haven't said so far whether the two of them have talked about the bill.

The proposal would also give a special liquor exemption to the Kohler American Resort. Kohler's American Club is distilling a chocolate brandy but having difficulties selling it because of state law. 

Wisconsin has a complicated system governing the making, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages that is known as the three-tier system. It dates back to the 1930s and was intended to prevent monopolies on the sale of beer, wine and spirits by separating businesses involved in alcohol production, wholesale and retail. 

The system can both limit the businesses of brewers, distributors and retailers and provide them with lucrative opportunities, so proposed changes to the law often provoke intense legislative battles.

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