Brewers Ask Lawmakers To Reject ‘Protectionist’ ‘Booze Czar’ Bill

MacIver News Service | Feb. 15, 2018

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. – William Glass spent more than eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, a good portion of that time leading junior Marines in combat and serving on security operations and aircraft fire fighting missions.

But perhaps the biggest battle of his life was with bureaucrats who ultimately took away his American Dream.

Glass, president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, on Thursday testified against a controversial bill that would create an “alcohol czar” to enforce Wisconsin’s booze laws in the complicated three-tier system of alcohol production, distribution and sales. Senate Bill 801 also would grant a special exemption to the Kohler American Resort to distribute on its properties the popular chocolate brandy it makes.

The measure would transfer agents and the alcohol enforcement mission from the state Department of Revenue to a new Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement.

A director, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, would lead the agency and have the authority to hire six additional agents.

The czar and the carveout aren’t sitting well with craft brewers and liquor distillers who envision a new bureaucracy hammering away at their liberty and prosperity.

“I didn’t suit up in body armor on the other side of the world to protect special interests,” Glass said.

“We’re here to review a bill created by special interests to protect special interests,” he told the Senate Committee Economic Development, Commerce and Local Government. “Do not let anyone fool you into believing that we had any part in the negotiation of this bill, nor have we had a seat at the table for any conversation of legislation that has impacted our industry over the last 30 years.”

The bill has been on the fast-track since MacIver News Service first reported Tuesday of its existence. Two days later, the committee had pulled together a public hearing and it had scheduled an executive committee vote on the bill for Friday morning.

Capitol insiders, however, tell MacIver News Service that the bill will be pulled from the executive committee agenda before the meeting.

Senate support among conservatives seemed in serious doubt. Several Republican senators expressed concerns about the proposal.

Committee member Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) said he could not support the legislation in its current form.

“Portage County is a hub for craft brewing and distilling. These businesses employ many people locally and contribute greatly to the region’s economy,” Testin said in a statement Thursday evening. “As soon as this legislation was introduced, I reached out to brewers, distillers and winery owners in my district to get their input. I heard their concerns, and as a result I cannot vote for this bill as it is currently written.”

The bill’s co-author, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), defended the bill, asserting a decline in enforcement activity at the Department of Revenue in the wake of a key retirement.

“None of the laws related to the regulation of alcohol are changed under this proposal,” Fitzgerald told the committee. “The existing authority is transferred to the office. The main change creates an organizational chart with one person at top so everyone knows who they can go to for clear answers.”

But if that’s the case, critics say, why not fill the vacant position at DOR and emphasize enforcement. Gov. Scott Walker, they said, could do that at any time.

MillerCoors has expressed as much in its opposition to the bill. In a letter to legislators, the mega brewer said DOR has been “effectively and efficiently” regulating the alcohol industry in the state since Prohibition. Reduce regulation, don’t increase it, the company wrote.

“Creation of a new agency is a flawed solution in search of a problem that does not exist,” the letter states. “It will increase government spending and bureaucracy.”

Fitzgerald said the “uniform messages across the board” from MillerCoors to the wineries is that “there’s just no enforcement right now in the alcohol laws and that has to be changed.”

Distillers, craft brewers, MillerCoors and others have all publicly stated that enforcement is not the problem.

As for the Kohler piece of the legislation, Fitzgerald said it is a “limited exemption that allows a uniquely Wisconsin product to keep up with the demand that’s out there.”

Rep. Tyler Vorpagel (R-Plymouth) said Kohler’s expansion would be a huge boon for tourism in Sheboygan County and the state.

Brian Sammons, owner of Twisted Path Distillery in Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin Distillers Guild, said he understands why Kohler would want relief from an antiquated law that strictly segregates alcohol production, distribution, and sales. He wants the same for his business. So do so many other distillers, brewers, and wineries in Wisconsin, Sammons said. But they will be made to play by the same draconian rules found in Wisconsin’s mess of alcohol statutes, he said. And those rules are killing business in the Badger State.

“This is the second time in less than a year that I’m not doing my business so that I can come to the Capitol and try to defend our business from the state ending it, or at least to make sure they’re not going to by accident, even if it’s not their intention,” Sammons said.

The state – or at least the state law – did take Glass’ business.

He was forced to transfer ownership of the Brewing Projekt, the Eau Claire craft brewery he started, to his father. Why? Because his wife owns a tavern. While the business was wholly owned by his wife, the Department of Revenue told him that because the couple have children in a marital property state they would be “bridging the tiers” in Wisconsin’s three-tier system. That is to say, they would, according to state law, have interests in two of three alcohol tiers. Not allowed.

“I humbly sit before you an unemployed man,” Glass told the committee. He heads up the Brewers Guild and volunteers his time at the brewery “that I dreamed up but am not allowed to legally own or work at.”

“This is the law of unintended consequences. This is what happens when legislation isn’t thought out,” he said. “My situation, I believe, is the result of decades of overregulation and protectionist policies put in place by special interests.”