Senate pushes ahead with ‘alcohol czar’ bill as breweries fight it

MADISON— The Wisconsin Senate is pushing ahead with a bill creating a powerful new "alcohol czar" position to enforce liquor laws in the state, even though Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Republican leaders appear cool to the idea. Wisconsin breweries are fighting against it.

Henry Schwartz

"This is something that came to our attention on Wednesday night -- so yesterday," Henry Schwartz president of MobCraft Beer said Thursday, Feb. 15.

A Senate committee scheduled a public hearing on the bill Thursday, just two days after Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald introduced it. The new "alcohol czar" position would have broad powers to enforce Wisconsin laws and regulations governing the production, distribution and sale of beer, wine and alcohol. There would be a new enforcement office, headed by the czar/director, with six staffers to police the industry.

"This has become the wild, wild west," Fitzgerald said.

Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald said big brewers, the Tavern League and wholesalers support it. Additionally, the measure is backed by the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute, whose lobbyist is Fitzgerald's brother Jeff Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald said that's not why he's pushing it.

"I think the angle is that we currently have laws on the books in Wisconsin and they're just not being enforced," he said.

Opponents include the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, the Wisconsin Winery Association and MillerCoors.

MillerCoors

Walker has not endorsed the idea and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos calls is a "big lift."

So many craft brewers and industry reps showed up for the public hearing that they needed to move it to a bigger room. Schwartz said a new alcohol czar could put big brewers' interests ahead of small ones.

"Creating a whole different governmental body to regulate something that's not really an issue seems kind of ridiculous," he said.

The bill gives a special exemption to Kohler Resort, which wants to sell its chocolate brandy on site, but can't due to state law.

Craft brewers say lawmakers could help them by letting them sell beer online in Wisconsin like other states do. Fitzgerald downplayed the opposition.

"New Glarus Brewery was in the room the first time we talked about the bill. They said this will not have any effect on craft brewers," Fitzgerald said.