Advocates for a bill which would raise Wisconsin's beer tax squared off Tuesday against brewers and others opposing the bill during a public debate at the State Capitol.
Assembly Bill 287, introduced by Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison), proposes raising the tax on beer in Wisconsin from $2 a barrel to $10 a barrel, a tax which has not been raised since 1969. According to Berceau, the $8 tax increase per barrel would raise $40 million next year, money which the proposed bill designates "to fund law enforcement grants and alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention programs."
Berceau brought seven six-packs of Wisconsin brewed beer to the hearing, saying that the beer tax would go up less than three cents a bottle, an amount she doesn't think will affect the average beer drinker much.
"Under my proposal, you would have to drink a six-pack every single day before you pay an additional dollar in taxes," said Berceau. "And it is my contention, and I think that to a lot of people in this room, that it's worth it to get serious about our drunk driving problems and other problems related to alcohol in our state."
Jeff Hamilton, vice president of both Sprecher Brewing and the Wisconsin Brewers Guild (WBG), argued that the tax could indeed be passed on to consumers due to the three-tiered beer sales system (Manufacturer, to distributor, to wholesaler) in place in Wisconsin. He used an example of the system turning a 30-cent increase in manufacturing into a $1 increase when the product gets to consumers. Hamilton also said jobs would be lost.
"[WBG] represents 30 breweries, most of which are less than 10-person operations that are truly entrepreneurial in their home towns and are a part of that home town's entire fabric," said Hamilton. "So to think that increasing the beer tax 900% would not have an effect on either dropping consumption or costs that would cause that to go down is really naive. For us (Sprecher Brewing), that would mean three to four jobs."
Katina Buttera, owner of O'so Brewing Company in Plover, agreed that the tax would cost jobs at her two-year-old brewery, which has recently grown from producing 300 barrels a year to around 1,000 barrels a year.
"We took three people off the unemployment line this year," said Buttera while protesting the proposed tax outside the Capitol. "One person will be leaving if the tax passes."
While concerns of price hikes and job loss were at the forefront of arguments opposing the bill, advocates for the tax reinforced their stance that not enough is being done about the continuing problems related to alcohol abuse across the state, and that the bill attempts to address those issues.
"The strongest deterrent to drunk driving is the belief you have a good chance of getting caught, so more law enforcement will keep people who are intoxicated from getting behind the wheel," said Dr. Robert Golden, Dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. "And in order to do that, especially in these economic times, we need to have a new flow of funds that can pay for the increase in law enforcement."