Thursday, August 16, 2007

America's Drunkest Legislature

Wisconsin lawmakers show their love for beer through favorable legislation
Scott Bauer, Associated Press
August 16, 2007

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin lawmakers seem to love their beer. They've allowed grocery stores to hand out free samples, shunned a proposal to boost the tax on it and ensured that daylight saving time didn't hasten last call.

And other pro-beer legislation is brewing.

Politicians know the rich tradition of brewing in the state and treat beer-related issues with kid gloves, said Jerry Apps, who has written a history of Wisconsin breweries. Brewers and sellers also pose one of the state's most powerful lobbies.

“It's beer, cheese, brats and the Packers. Let's face it, it's been our history for some time,” he said.

Wisconsin's taste for beer can be traced to its German settlers, who opened the first breweries and saw their numbers grow to roughly 400 by the late 1800s. The state now has around 60, including the Miller Brewing Co., the nation's second-leading producer.

Milwaukee, often called the “Brew City,” once was home to the Miller, Blatz, Schlitz and Pabst breweries. Only Miller remains, though the city is home to several microbreweries and brew pubs. It's no accident that the city's major league baseball team is named the Milwaukee Brewers and plays at Miller Park.

“It's one of our icons,” Apps said of the beverage. “You don't go lobbing stones at our icons.”

Just ask state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison. Her proposal to increase the tax on beer went flat.

“We have given more favorable treatment to the beer industry than any other in this state,” Berceau said. “Everybody's so afraid of the beer tax and beer industry.”

So afraid, it seems, that Berceau could find only two lawmakers among her 131 colleagues to co-sponsor the proposal and boost the beer tax for the first time since 1969 and only the third time since Prohibition ended.

The Tavern League of Wisconsin, the lobbying arm for the state's 13,000 bars, is generally recognized as one of the most powerful forces in the Capitol.

“I guess overall we're treated all right,” said the group's executive director, Pete Madland. “I think people understand the nature of our business and our industry.”

Berceau's not the only one frustrated with the beer industry's influence with state lawmakers.

“Drunken driving issues, especially in Wisconsin, are tough for us,” said Lindsay Desormier of the Wisconsin chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I think part of it is just the culture in Wisconsin.”

Though the state's penalties for some serious DUI offenses are on par with others, Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense is treated like a traffic ticket with no chance of jail time, Desormier said.

Wisconsin is also one of the few states that allows parents to purchase alcohol for their children to consume in their presence, she said.

And while the law prohibits anyone under age 21 from entering a bar, unless accompanied by a parent, there are numerous exemptions that allow them to go to such places as bowling alleys and volleyball courts where alcohol is served. Two pending bills also would make exceptions for batting cages at beer-serving establishments and the Wisconsin Renaissance Faire. dubbed Milwaukee “America's Drunkest City” last year out of a list of 35 major metropolitan areas. In a 2005 study of data from 40 states, the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Wisconsin had the highest binge-drinking rate among adults and the second-highest among college students.

Binge drinking is defined as having five or more beers in one sitting during the past month.

There was plenty of drinking within sight of the Capitol on Aug. 11 when beer lovers descended on Madison for the Great Taste of the Midwest, one of the largest beer festivals in the country featuring 500 different beers.

About half of the 100 brewers, and most of the 5,000 ticket holders, hailed from Wisconsin, said festival chairman Bill Rogers.

“I guess everybody knows Wisconsin loves beer and beer helped build this state and make it what is,” he said. “I think some of the legislators get it.”

Apparently, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle gets it.

He signed into law a bill that ensured there would be no confusion about last call when taverns adjusted their clocks for daylight savings time in March. The Legislature made it clear that bartenders could keep serving after closing time sprang forward.

Doyle also signed a bill, behind unanimous support of the Legislature, allowing such retailers as grocery stores and liquor stores to promote a particular beer brand or special with free samples.

The legislative session hasn't gone completely in the brewers' favor, however.

Small brewery owners mounted a protest at a July hearing on a proposal to set new limits on how much beer they could produce. They handed lawmakers empty beer bottles stuffed with notes decrying the proposal.

The day before the hearing, angry brewers put a new spin on the Boston Tea Party and dumped beer into the Milwaukee River.

The bill's author subsequently tabled the proposal.

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