Study of 'Alcohol czar' idea pushed after vote canceled

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It appears to be closing time, at least for now, on creating a powerful "alcohol czar" to enforce Wisconsin beer and liquor laws and regulations.

The Republican chairman of the state Senate's economic development committee called Friday for more study of the idea after he canceled an earlier scheduled vote to pass the bill. The move by Sen. Dan Feyen comes after a Thursday public hearing in which brewers, distillers and others came out strongly against the idea, saying it was too far-reaching and not the appropriate way to address flaws with the current system.

Wisconsin's complicated three-tiered system of laws and regulations covering the making, distribution and selling of beer, wine and liquor was put in place in the 1930s after Prohibition. It's designed to prevent monopolies controlling all stages of the production, distribution and sale of booze.

Any attempts to tinker with the system, affecting manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers, traditionally provokes a strong response.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called for creating a new Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement, headed by an "alcohol czar" appointed by the governor. That position would have broad powers to issue alcohol permits, make warrantless arrests and confiscate illegal booze.

The bill also called for issuing a special permit to Kohler American Resort to ease the distillation and selling of its chocolate brandy.

But the measure drew a swift and loud negative response from the nation's largest brewers and some of the state's smaller craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, the Wisconsin Winery Association, Wollersheim Winery and numerous smaller breweries across the state all came out against the proposal. Gov. Scott Walker did not commit to the idea when asked about it Wednesday, and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos repeatedly said it would be difficult to pass the Assembly before it completes its work for the session next week.

Fitzgerald had an aggressive timeline. He introduced the proposal on Tuesday, the committee held a hearing Thursday and the vote on passing it was originally to happen Friday before Feyen put a cork in it.

"It is clear that there are larger issues with how we regulate and enforce alcoholic beverages here in Wisconsin that need to be addressed," Feyen said in a statement, noting concerns about the current system that were raised at the hearing.

He called on Senate leadership to create a study committee to review alcohol laws in conjunction with those in the industry. Fitzgerald did not immediately return a message seeking comment on whether he was giving up on the bill this year or if he would go along with the study.

Fitzgerald's brother, Jeff Fitzgerald, was lobbying for the bill on behalf of the state's wholesale win and liquor sellers. Scott Fitzgerald told reporters on Thursday that he had talked with his brother about the bill, but that he hadn't exercised undue influence on the process.

Scott Fitzgerald had argued that the change was needed because current laws and regulations aren't being adequately enforced.

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