Budget committee member: 'I'm going to fight' potential state liquor law clarification

KATELYN FERRAL | The Capital Times | kferral@madison.com | @katelynferral Jun 19, 2017

Budget committee member Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said he is committed to fighting any efforts to change the state's alcohol laws that could affect the way small businesses operate.

"I will not support any law that moves Wisconsin backwards on the ability to brew and enjoy and sell alcohol. It's part of our tradition and that’s been my record on this," he said in an interview.

Kooyenga said he has been in "constant contact" with distillers, winemakers and brewers about "drafting instructions" for a plan circulating at the Capitol earlier this month that proposes to clarify state rules for businesses that produce, distribute or sell alcohol. The framework of regulations for those businesses is known as the three-tier system.

The proposal would specifically bar exemptions from the system and prohibit companies from one tier from getting a license to serve another kind of alcoholic beverage. It would also create an enforcement office within the Department of Revenue to enforce the change.

Kooyenga said he has not seen any formal plan or indication that it will be slipped into the budget at the last minute, but said he is watching for it.

"We’re here to fight for those guys because it’s a big part of Wisconsin traditions," he said.

Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin has also been a vocal opponent of any changes to the state's liquor laws, especially if they are slipped into the budget.

The group said it is buying ads to run Tuesday during conservative talk radio programs in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Eau Claire and Wausau.

“Policies threatening to harm consumer choice and Wisconsin’s craft beverage producers, especially to benefit established interests, must be kept out of the state budget,” said Eric Bott, state director of Americans for Prosperity. “We’re willing to commit resources ranging from grassroots canvassing to digital and radio ads to see the backroom deals blocked.”

New Glarus Brewing Company, state distillers and winemakers have also come out against any changes, which they say could put them out of business. MillerCoors has said it opposes the creation of an additional alcohol enforcement office under the state Department of Revenue, but supports the three-tier system overall.

The Wisconsin Winery Association, Brewers Guild and Distillers Guild plan to join together this week to form a state craft beverage coalition to lobby against any legislative changes to liquor laws that would hamper their industries, according to the groups.

The Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, the Wisconsin Tavern League and the Wisconsin Wine and Spirits Institute have historically supported stronger enforcement and language of the state's liquor laws. Sources have said they were behind the latest plan to clarify the laws.
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The Wisconsin Tavern League has said it is not behind the plan. The other groups have not responded to requests for comment on it.

Roger Johnson administered the state's liquor laws at the state Department of Revenue's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement from 1977 until his retirement three years ago. He said he sees the need for the state's alcohol statutes to include more enforcement mechanisms.

The number of enforcement officers has dwindled over the years even as the number of wineries, breweries and brewpubs has increased. When he started, there were 23 people on the enforcement staff, he said. Over the years, it went from 20 agents to 18 to 15 to 13. The DOR now says it has nine people on its enforcement staff.

Johnson said he understands the argument that new breweries, wineries and distilleries create jobs, but said some clarification would be good for the industry overall.

"Restrictions placed on this industry are not found in others for many good reasons," Johnson said.

The three-tier system works well but could be clarified and strengthened so that "all the players know the rules going in," he said. "Not my call, but I always preferred to see laws clearly written, understandable and able to be administered — not 20 pages of laws, 200 pages of exceptions. I struggled for 38 years in this area."

Johnson said he heard from many attorneys over the years, including local government attorneys and district attorneys, who said the state's liquor laws were convoluted and hard to understand.