Fitzgerald revives push to create alcohol czar

Sen. Fitzgerald speaks as the Senate debates the right-to-work bill in the Senate Chambers in the State Capitol, in Madison, on Tuesday, February 24, 2015. photo by Michelle Stocker

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he is taking another run at creating an alcohol czar, claiming enforcement of current rules by the Department of Revenue has fallen apart.

Earlier talks this session about an Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement faded amid opposition from various groups. An earlier version also proposed changes to the state’s three-tiered system for the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol.

But the Juneau Republican said he’s been working on the latest proposal since November, because of what he described as a general unhappiness with the enforcement of the state’s alcohol rules by the Department of Revenue. He also cited a specific complaint regarding the Kohler Co.

“The alcohol statutes in Wisconsin are not being enforced, period,” Fitzgerald told reporters Monday.

Current law gives DOR authority over the manufacture, distribution and retail of alcohol. Under Fitzgerald’s proposal, all of those responsibilities would be transferred to the proposed office. Also, all positions at DOR responsible for alcohol enforcement would transfer to the office.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters he hadn’t been involved in the drafting of the bill and hasn’t a chance to review it.

Asked about the likelihood of it passing the chamber, Vos said he’d have to talk with his caucus, but people “were somewhat skeptical of it during the budget process, (and) I haven’t seen many people change their minds.”

Fitzgerald’s bill does not include major changes to the three-tiered system.

Still, in addition to a lack of enforcement, Fitzgerald said he’s been working on the legislation, in part, because of a situation with the Kohler Co. He said the company wants to add a distillery near the American Club in Kohler to produce chocolate brandy. But because the company currently operates bars as part of its resort and golf course there, it is not permitted to do so.

The bill would allow the the proposed Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement to issue a manufacturer permit allowing resorts to produce and sell distilled spirits and wine. The permit also would allow them to sell beer if it was purchased from a wholesaler.

That would add another exemption to the current three-tier system, which generally requires producers to sell to wholesalers, who then sells to retailers. Under the permit, a resort could manufacture up to 150,000 gallons of liquor a year on its premises, sell it to wholesales and retail it on the premises to be consumed there.

A company spokeswoman did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment.

The groups that have opposed the earlier efforts include Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, and Executive Director Eric Bott said Monday he has concerns about concentrating to much authority over alcohol laws into one office. He said the person overseeing the office undoubtedly would be wooed by various alcohol interests in an attempt to curry favor.

“You’re worried about what’s step two? What’s going to come next when it comes to this authority when it comes to creating regulations?” Bott said.

Fitzgerald said he hoped Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, would convene a public hearing Thursday before the Committee on Economic Development, Commerce and Local Government. Feyen was in caucus Monday afternoon and did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Hear Fitzgerald’s audio:

Read the bill:
https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/related/proposals/sb801

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