Beer tax hearing -- the aftermath

It's not exactly the aftermath per se, as the thing is still going on, but I needed food and caffeine, and I think I've heard as many doctors, schoolchildren, old folks, and business owners that I need to hear. Given the length, you can find the blow-by-blow after the jump -- here's a bit of the table of contents:

--9 am: infiltration of the opposition, which is to say, the supporters of the beer tax increase
--9.30: skulking! And some costumed crusaders sign-wavers.
--10 am: brawling lots of boring droning on the hearing, at last!

The basic contention comes down to this: those for the bill claim alcohol is costing the state obscene amounts of money, and consumers of alcohol should be made to pay; those opposed point to job losses in communities that are already hurting from the state's terrible economy.

Having my times mixed up, I found myself in the Inn on the Park at 9 am, among a crowd gathered to much on donuts and punish beer drinkers. They wore buttons begging to be taxed, and stickers offering their two-and-a-half cents (the alleged cost per glass of the tax). Representative Terese Berceau, one of the original authors of the bill, opened her rambling remarks with, "We are here to say we want to be taxed." That would be the message from the supporters of the bill throughout the day -- pooh-pooh the economic consequences, and demand a new tax (but don't call it a tax -- call it a "user fee," just like in hunting or fishing!).

Rep. Berceau referenced "this problem" often, though never made it clear, either in her ramble at breakfast or in her later testimony to the committee, what the problem was, exactly. Was it drunken driving? Was it alcoholism more generally? One could be forgiven for thinking she was really against anyone (besides her -- she took pains to point out that "I do drink beer... with my size, I can't drink a lot") drinking anything at all, really.

Her remarks would also reveal, throughout the day, her attitude toward Wisconsin's craft brewers: "Where are they going to go?" The scoffing at business, and inability to grasp basic economics, would continue throughout the day.

Kathleen Falk and Dr Bob Golden, the Dean of the Medical School, also spoke. Falk was brief, and sounded for most of her remarks as if she were about to begin crying; Dr Golden suggested that most of those speaking against the bill would be lobbyists, as opposed to the pure-hearted samaritans who wanted the tax -- a charming canard if ever there was one.

The hour almost up, my car needed moving, so I sneaked out, skulking along at a remove from the energized would-be taxers charging the capitol. On my way to the car, I bumped into a dozen or so opponents of the beer tax, dressed up as bottles and waiving signs outside the north entrance to the capitol. A few words were exchanged between the sign wavers and the pure hearts, but they mostly passed each other in silence, focused on the words to come inside.

Despite the crowd -- for the first few hours, it was standing room only, and not much of that in 417 North -- I managed to not only get a chair, but one with a power outlet nearby. The lady next to me, bedecked in stickers and buttons and begging to pay a few cents more for her beer, asked what brought me here. I said I wanted to see the action. "There will be a lot of action," she assured me.

Rep Berceau was first up to testify, and began with a weird, 8th-grade prop trick, laying out bottles of beer on the table in front of the committee, and tossing change down on the table to show how much tax would be proposed for each bottle. She was a bit more on-point this time, less rambly than at breakfast. It didn't improve her concern for job loss. And she claimed that many alcoholics supported her bill, which struck me as odd -- sure, I'd like someone else to pay for my medical treatment too, but that doesn't make it right, or wise. She also made rich mention of a Powerpoint presentation she had online, to which the Madison Beer Review has some fine rebuttals.

"Hopefully all the clapping is out of our system now," came the dry rejoinder after a smattering of applause sprouted hesitantly, then faded away.

Representative Bies came after her in the question time, and this was where Berceau's craftiness came to the fore, as she dodged question after question as soon as the topic moved from generalities to specifics. Berceau claimed a "hazy knowledge" of the treatment programs now on the books, or how these programs would be impacted by the new legislation. Pushed further, she shifted to talking about early prevention programs, rather than treatment, and suggested workplace screening for alcoholism and drug abuse -- another item she dodged when asked if this screening should be mandatory or not: "I'm not here to debate that today... there are a lot of approaches we can take." And when he asked how long it would be before the tax was increased, her reply was merely, "why do nothing? Why assume the status quo is going to change?"

She got heat from her own side of the bench as well, with Representative Smith asking about the focus on law enforcement funding rather than prevention. Berceau claimed pressure from police groups, only to claim a moment later that numerous sheriffs' offices have since "decided this isn't a constant source of money," and didn't want to deal with her proposed programs; this prompted Smith to ask about the point of the hearings today, "if we aren't even talking about the bill we'll vote on." Berceau protested that "many times through administrative rule we change" details of bills subsequent to hearings.

Berceau was followed by Mssrs Hamilton and Nolan of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, to explain the real impacts the bill would have, especially local microbrewers. Nolan remarked that not only would the tax cause a "30% layoff" at Capital, it would pass on "$3/ case rollup" cost to the consumer. He also gave the lie to Berceau's claim that people drink more in hard economic times -- in his years in business, he hasn't seen that bear out; hard times also push consumers to cheaper beer, not the premium products put out by small-scale brewers.

But Representative Smith couldn't wrap his head around the idea that a tax at the beginning of the food chain has snowball effects on final consumer price, asking multiple times for an explanation. Nor could he figure out how a tax could put pressure on small businesses, saying earnestly, "I don't see how this is going to result in job loss." Nolan's explanation that an extra charge of $200,000 to his company -- the real price of the tax to him in a year -- would have a major impact on a business already struggling to break even.

The pattern established with these two pieces of testimony continued unbroken over the next two-and-a-half hours; in his testimony, Dr Golden made the surprising claim that "this bill is what any reasonable person would describe as a [minimal increase]" in beer price, while a coalition of grocers explained the economics of having to let go employees because fewer people buy beer, and they can't afford the markup. A woman who had lost her husband and oldest son to a drunk driver wept and hoped the tax would go toward highway checkpoints for drunk drivers, while the Teamsters representative remarked, "if we believed for one moment that this tax would save one life, we would support it even if it raised taxes on 'Joe Sixpack.'" Democratic representatives on the committee continued to wonder how a small tax on those who produce a product could end up causing both large markups for consumers and layoffs in multiple industries, while Republicans took a moment to ask grocers where their most recent tax hikes had come from ("oh, the budget").

And so it went. Sadly, the range of business hasn't been well represented in media reports -- this early summary would have the battle pitting the Tavern League, chuckling over the profits squeezed from the increasingly alcoholic blood of scruffy drunks, against all the good and sane and upright right-thinking people. That simply isn't the case -- indeed, as was noted by a vast range of business owners, from those who run individual grocery stores to small brewers to the Teamsters, this bill would have dire economic consequences on towns across Wisconsin already suffering badly from the economic downturn. Instead of raising revenue, that could well push down the overall tax base, resulting in even less money coming in to a state with an already disgustingly bloated budget.