Bill takes aim at ‘modernizing’ state’s alcohol laws

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Craft breweries would be allowed to expand, wineries would be open until 2 a.m. and communities could offer more liquor licenses, according to legislation aimed at muscling up Wisconsin’s alcohol industry.

Lawmakers, including River Falls legislators Shannon Zimmerman and Sheila Harsdorf, unveiled the “Cheers Wisconsin” legislation Tuesday, Aug. 1, at a Madison-area brewery. Supporters said the bill would “modernize” Wisconsin’s three-tiered system governing alcohol, which delineates rules for producers, distributors and retailers.

Zimmerman said those rules — initially established after prohibition to prevent monopolies in the alcohol industry — have become more restrictive in Wisconsin over the past decade. The latest challenge to the state’s alcohol system was a proposal circulating in Madison that lawmakers said sought to ban microbreweries from selling their own beer in taprooms without first contracting with a distributor.

Though the Wisconsin Tavern League said the proposal was fictitious, Zimmerman contended the motion was very real and said the legislation unveiled Tuesday was a direct response to the proposal.

The River Falls Republican said the Cheers Wisconsin legislation would “probably not” have been offered, if not for the secretive motion circulated in Madison.

“That had an effect on our actions today,” the freshman lawmaker said, adding that public outcry in response to reports about possible taproom closures was remarkable.

Provisions of the so-called modernization bill include one that would expand limits on beer production from 10,000 barrels to 20,000 gallons. The number of locations for brewpubs, currently six, would also double under the bill.

“These guys aren’t going to be monopolies,” Zimmerman said. “Rather than restrict them, let’s give them a little more capacity.”
The proposal would also allow wineries to stay open until 2 a.m. and lift rules preventing wineries from selling beer. Also, facilities classified as “small wineries” would be able to double production up to 50,000 gallons.

Zimmerman, who owns a winery, said those provisions address concerns that some establishments are treated differently than others under current law.

“Let’s just level the playing field,” he said, adding that the 2 a.m. change would strictly address the ability for wineries to hold wedding receptions.

Another provision of the bill calls for a 10 percent increase in the number of liquor licenses available to cities.

Hudson is a poster child for that effort, Zimmerman said, citing discussions with Mayor Rich O’Connor. Zimmerman said the mayor explained to him the difficulty of fielding four viable offers from businesses seeking a liquor license, with just one available.

“We’re just giving them a little more breathing room to help foster that,” Zimmerman said.

The legislation, which also lifts certain regulations for prospective distributor businesses, was crafted exclusively by lawmakers, Zimmerman said. The thought of bringing in special interest groups to tailor the bill smacked of the “covert” process behind the secret motion, he said, arguing that it made more sense for lawmakers familiar with the alcohol industry to be the bill’s architects.

Still, he said he expects the bill to face strong opposition from lobbying groups. He said he welcomes the input as the legislative process unfolds, but said regular Wisconsinites will see the proposal as a common-sense approach.

“Competition is a beautiful thing,” Zimmerman said. “A business should be free to win or lose on the merit of the business and not because government chose a winner or a loser.”

Zimmerman said the bill has no financial costs to the state.

“It actually should be favorable to the state,” he said, citing revenue generated through job creation.