Bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks veto of craft beer limits

2011-06-21T16:00:00Z 2012-05-23T17:32:30Z Bipartisan group of lawmakers seeks veto of craft beer limitsMARY SPICUZZA | mspicuzza@madison.com | 608-252-6122 madison.com

Lawmakers and craft brewers are stepping up their efforts to urge Gov. Scott Walker to veto parts of the state budget that could limit microbreweries' ability to expand and distribute beer in the future.

A bipartisan group of seven lawmakers sent a letter to Walker on Tuesday morning calling on him to veto the plan, saying it will punish Wisconsin's more than 60 craft brewers.

"These small and growing businesses help define the very culture of this state," the letter said. "They will be greatly harmed by the new policy — a policy that should have been left out of the budget in the first place."

The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Glenn Grothman and Pam Galloway and Reps. Evan Wynn, Stephen Nass and Joseph Knilans. Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch and Rep. Brett Hulsey also signed it.

At least two Democrats are working on a second letter requesting that the governor veto the plan.

And craft brewers have been meeting with lawmakers to share their concerns, writing to the governor and trying to generate public support. They say they are hopeful Walker will remove the craft beer limits, which were not in the governor's original two-year spending plan but rather added by the Legislature's budget committee.

"I believe in democracy," said Deb Carey, president of New Glarus Brewing Co. "I believe there is hope."

Walker spokesman said the governor will "evaluate that provision and make any veto-related announcements once the decisions have been finalized."

Carey and Tom Porter, owner of Lake Louie Brewing Co., expressed dismay that the plan was inserted into the budget at all. 

"We hire employees, we pay property taxes, we create wealth in the state," Porter said. "It would really stop the growth of craft beer in Wisconsin."

A spokeswoman for Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, co-chair of the budget committee, referred calls to Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald's office. A spokesman for Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, didn't return a call for comment.

The beer battle in the budget has pitted craft brewers, which produce about 5 percent of the beer in the state, against the large, well-known brewer, MillerCoors. Smaller brewers say the plan — supported by MillerCoors, Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, Tavern League of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Grocers Association — would limit possible future expansions for microbrewers.

Advocates from MillerCoors and the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association could not be reached immediately for comment.

It would combine brewer's permits and wholesale and retail licenses issued by municipalities into a single permit under state control, meaning brewers could effectively be banned from buying wholesale distributors. 

Craft brewers say they might need that option to avoid getting shut out of the market by larger brewers. Proposed changes would also keep brewers from selling other brands and keep them from starting a series of breweries that sell the beer with its name.

Wisconsin has three tiers for alcohol distribution: brewers, wholesalers that distribute beer and retailers that sell it.

A Facebook page named "Support 3-Tier Wisconsin," has been created to promote the plan. It says the proposal doesn't limit competition, it delivers choice.

"It's because of the very important role beer distributors play — giving smaller, more unique beers a vehicle to market — that consumers enjoy the selection they desire at a great price," it reads.

As of Tuesday evening, only 38 people had clicked "like" on the Facebook page.

Carey said she is not an opponent of the three-tier system or beer wholesalers, but questioned why the change was suddenly inserted into the budget.

"This is nothing but smoke and mirrors," she said. "Why was it put in as a budget issue? Without review? And it had to be introduced late at night?"

Craft brewers and lawmakers critical of the plan said it should be removed from the budget and introduced as a separate bill so it can go through public hearings and the typical legislative process.

Rep. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said, "Craft breweries are some of the few businesses that are growing and doing well in the state."

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