Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Berceau's beer tax bill better left on bar room floor

I don't suspect that Rep. Terese Berceau's proposal to raise the beer tax in Wisconsin will ever make it to the floor of the Legislature, let alone be signed into law by Gov. Doyle (who has stated his opposition to it already).

Still, her proposal to increase the tax on a barrel from $2 to $10 - but only for beers made in Wisconsin - raises some interesting questions and has prompted an overdue debate.

At first blush, it would be easy to think, "Oh the beer industry makes tons of cash, and their taxes haven't been raised in decades, so this shouldn't be a problem." Plus, part of Berceau's proposal is that the increased revenue that would presumably result from such a change would go toward funding enforcement of drunk driving laws. So what's not to like?

I'm 100% behind efforts to curb the number of people who get behind the wheel wasted or even tipsy. I just don't think this particular bill is the way to do it - nor do I think it's entirely honest to say that this is what it's really all about.

As I already mentioned, the tax would only apply to in-state breweries: ie, micro and craft brewers. Big conglomerates like Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors would get off scot-free, even though they're the companies most able to absorb an additional cost such as this. Meanwhile, smaller, local breweries would pay the price.

Chris Staples, one of the owners of Madison-area brewery Furthermore Beer, recently wrote a thoughtful piece about his opposition to the proposed tax bill. It was the first thing I'd read that made me really sit up and take notice of the issue, and to rethink my initial position on it. Staples makes it clear that he's not against paying their fair share, just that Berceau's particular bill is the wrong way to go about things. You can read the whole thing here.

Wisconsin definitely suffers from a schizophrenic relationship with alcohol. We have a long and storied history of producing some of the best beer, but we have an equally lengthy record of abusing the fruits of our labors. Better enforcement of drinking related laws is important. Greater focus on treatment and prevention is even more crucial. But we also need to make sure our politicians, for all their apparently noble gestures toward the aforementioned goals, are really working toward what's best for Wisconsinites...and not the big corporations with the least investment in our communities.

(photo by Chris_J on Flickr)


Alan said...

I agree it's time to increase the taxes paid on beer but increasing the tax on the small producers is wrong for all the reasons Mr. Staples listed in his editorial.

Raising the beer tax on the producer hurts exclusively Wisconsin small-ish businesses and also signifigantly raises the price to the consumer as that tax gets passed on to the distributer and then finally to the consumer.

Instead, a tax on the point-of-purchase consumer level would make far more sense. Such a tax would effect all beer sold in the state, small breweries to brewopolies, Wisconsin beers to foreign imports (i.e. Budweiser). It would result in less of a cost-increase to the consumer and could potentally collect a lot more tax money for the state.

The only reasons why I can think that someone would support a producer level tax over a consumer level one is if 1) you are just trying to make a political crusade against drinking or 2) you don't want to face the lobbyists of MillerCoors.

Emily said...

Alan, I wouldn't be surprised if it was both 1 and 2 driving Berceau.

Stu Levitan said...

Emily, based on your response to Alan I will be defriending you. You have every right to oppose this bill, but your conjecture as to motive is wrong and mean-spirited. Goodbye.

Emily said...

Stu - Well, I can't say I'm not disappointed, but you have every right to "defriend" me if you wish (though you make this sound like a simple matter of Facebook settings, which I think is petty), but I'm really not sure why you've taken this so hard.

I don't think my conjecture was mean spirited at all--simply an admittedly somewhat cynical but ultimately realistic guess about the pressures most politicians face. If I'm wrong, Rep. Berceau has a far more public platform than I on which to prove it.

Jesse said...

Wow, defriended outside of a social network. Harsh.

Mad.Irish.Frog said...

Emily, when you say that the beer tax will not be imposed upon Bud-Miller-Coors, what do you mean? Isn't the tax being paid by the distributor that imports the barrel into Wisconsin? And don't Bud-Miller-Coors own their own distributors?

Or am I not understanding the tax?

Emily said...

Well, I'm pretty sure that I heard that the proposal has been entirely dropped, so it may be a moot point now.

But here's how I understood it: Since this would have been a tax at the production level, it would only apply to those brewers making beer in state. Do Bud-Miller-Coors have breweries still operating in Wisconsin? Because then yes, they would have felt the increase. If not, then no. Of course, big companies like that are far better equipped to absorb the cost than the various independents.

The Lost Albatross