Wisconsin brewers and distillers took to the capitol Thursday to attack a bill that would create a so-called “alcohol czar” while at the same time carving out an exemption to the state’s liquor laws for Kohler Co.
The hearing on the plan came just two days after it was formally introduced by Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, though its future appeared uncertain, especially in the Wisconsin Assembly.
Fitzgerald said the Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement that would be created under the bill was important because the state was not doing a good enough job regulating alcohol producers, wholesalers and retailers.
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“The main change that this proposal makes is to create an organizational chart with one person at the top,” Fitzgerald said.
But at the same time, Fitzgerald’s plan would give Kohler Co. permission to sidestep Wisconsin’s typical alcohol laws by granting them the ability to distill and sell brandy directly from their resorts.
“Our Kohler dark chocolate brandy and subsequent dark chocolate mint brandy have become quite popular,” Kohler Co.’s Michael Belot told lawmakers. “And a change in state law is necessary to allow us and our suppliers and vendors to reach our full potential.”
Critics argued it sent a mixed message to simultaneously give Kohler Co. special treatment while pushing tougher regulation elsewhere.
“Those broken laws that we’re going to exempt our friends from? We’re going to enforce them even more strictly on the rest of you,” said Brian Sammons, the founder of Twisted Path Distillery in Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin Distillers Guild.
Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, said the Kohler provision was a clear case of giving one company preferential treatment.
“How does this benefit everybody?” Bewley asked.
Others took issue with the prospect of putting a political appointee in charge of Wisconsin’s liquor law regulation, saying it made them uneasy that the businesses they’d built from scratch could be taken away from them.
“That’s something that scares me,” said Ryan Prellwitz, who runs Vines and Rushes Winery in Ripon and is the president of the Wisconsin Winery Association. “The changing rule structure in Wisconsin is one of the greatest fears that I have with regards to my business.”
Fitzgerald argued a political appointee would be more responsive, and give governors more of a chance to get involved if they needed to.
“If they see somebody going too far in enforcement, the governor could reign that in,” Fitzgerald said. “If they see somebody that’s not doing enough, the governor could kind of jack them up and say, ‘look, you’ve got to be doing a better job of this.’”
Whether the plan will pass before the Legislature adjourns in March remains to be seen.
When asked about the bill Wednesday, Gov. Scott Walker said it was not part of his agenda.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also gave no assurances Thursday that the bill would pass in his chamber.
“I think it’s very difficult to move that bill, at least in our own caucus,” Vos said.
Lawmakers weighed adding a similar proposal to the budget last year before ultimately deciding against it.
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