Republicans weigh creation of 'alcohol czar'

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.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had called for a bill creating a new Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement, headed by an “alcohol czar” appointed by the governor. The “czar” would be given 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. For decades, members of the Kohler family have been leading Republican donors.

The measure is backed by the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute. Fitzgerald’s brother, Jeff Fitzgerald, is the group’s lobbyist.

Scott Fitzgerald denied that his brother, with whom he’s reportedly very close, had any undue influence on him. He argued that the change was needed because current laws and regulations aren’t adequately enforced.

Jeff Fitzgerald also lobbies for the rent-to-own industry, which has been trying to enact a bill exempting the industry from consumer protection laws that Republicans have not yet overturned. Under current law, rent-to-own companies are required to disclose their interest rates, which often climb into the triple digits. The companies want to keep that information secret from customers.

Republicans, who receive large donations from the industry, revived that bill in November after Fitzgerald became a lobbyist for Aaron’s, a national rent-to-own chain.

Small craft brewers object

The fate of the “alcohol czar” bill was postponed Thursday after the Republican chairman of the state Senate’s economic development committee canceled an earlier scheduled vote to pass it. Instead, he called for more study of the issue after a rancorous public hearing where the brewers, wineries and distillers spoke 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.

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 has not commit to the idea and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who’s often at odds with Fitzgerald, 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 Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, put a cork in it.

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.

WiG staff writer Louis Weisberg contributed to this article.

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