Republicans looking to toughen Wisconsin alcohol enforcement

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans are making another run at toughening the state's alcohol regulations, with the GOP Senate leader saying Tuesday that the current laws governing brewers, distillers, distributors and retailers "are not being enforced, period."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he has been working behind the scenes with interested parties since November on potential changes. There were talks last year of reworking the state's complicated three-tier system for regulating the production, distribution and sale of alcohol, but nothing passed under opposition from craft brewers who said the changes could put them out of business.

The bill Fitzgerald introduced Tuesday wouldn't rework the three-tier system but would create a new, limited permit for qualifying resorts to manufacturer and sell up to 150,000 gallons of alcohol on-site each year. It also would create a new office to enforce liquor laws.

Fitzgerald said he hoped to have a public hearing on the measure Thursday, a fast turnaround as Republicans look to complete their work for the year next month. But GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos cautioned that quick passage may not be so easy.

"It could be a big lift," he said of Fitzgerald's bill. "I think we have to see where we are. We haven't talked about it with our caucus."

The latest measure drew opposition Tuesday from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, which also fought previous similar proposals. Its state director, Eric Bott, called the new "liquor czar" position created under the bill an "unanswerable bureaucratic post" with unaccountable, vast powers.

"Wisconsin's craft breweries, wineries and distillers provide livelihoods and enjoyment for thousands of people every day and should be allowed to continue to do so unabated, Bott said.

Under the proposal, alcohol administration and enforcement would be the responsibility of a newly created Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement within the Department of Revenue.

The Revenue Department's current powers related to alcohol enforcement, including issuing of certain alcohol permits, making warrantless arrests and confiscating illegal booze, would be transferred to the new office. The director would be appointed by the governor and confirmed to a six-year term by the Senate.

Fitzgerald said the new office was needed because current enforcement efforts at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue have "fallen apart" since the retirement of a person who had overseen that work.

"The alcohol statutes in Wisconsin are not being enforced, period," Fitzgerald told reporters. Some are taking advantage of it, Fitzgerald said, without naming any particular offenders. He said that "everyone" was concerned with a lack of enforcement.

"I feel like what we have before us is the result of a ton of negotiation," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said the new resort permit was designed to help The Kohler Company manufacture more of its chocolate-infused brandy.

Under the bill, the liquor produced by a holder of the new permit could be sold to wholesalers or at the resort without a retail license typically needed to sell alcohol. Beer and other liquor purchased from a wholesaler but not manufactured at the resort could also be sold on site with the new license.

A resort is defined as having at least 300 guest rooms, at least one spa, at least five different restaurants and a 36-hole golf course.

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