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Our View: Time for higher beer tax, tougher laws
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For four decades, beer has been a sacred cow in state government. The tax on beer hasn't been increased in 40 years, and the state's generally lax laws have helped contribute to making Wisconsin a national leader in drunken driving. It's way beyond time for all of that change.

The Legislature has discussed a number of different measures intended to crack down on the scourge of drunken driving in Wisconsin. Lawmakers appear committed to getting serious about the problem.

But cracking down on the problem will come at a price, in court and jail costs, not to mention the expense of recovery and preventative programs that are a necessity in the attempt to reduce the number of offenders.

State Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, has a proposal to pay those bills by increasing the state tax on beer. Her plan is to significantly increase the per barrel tax - from $2 to $10. That translates in a tax increase per bottle of beer from 0.6 cents to 3 cents.

The current tax is the third lowest in the nation. Obviously, there's room to add to the tax without overreaching. Consumers probably can handle an extra 15 cents per six-pack, particularly when smokers are paying a tax of $2.52 per pack.

But just because there's reasonable room to tax doesn't make it right. Wisconsin residents already pay enough in taxes, after all. What makes Berceau's proposal acceptable is that the money - an estimated $37.1 million the first year after enactment - will go toward stricter enforcement and prevention of drunken driving.

Criminalizing first-offense drunken driving would be an effective and sensible deterrent. But it's been estimated that doing so will cost the state $10 million in law enforcement and judicial costs. Without a funding source, the legislation will be tough sell amid a state budget crisis.

Those who get a firsthand look at the impacts of drunken driving - law enforcement agencies, hospitals, health care agencies and district attorneys - support a beer tax increase. Not surprisingly, the brewing industry, state Tavern League and Restaurant Association do not. Neither does Gov. Jim Doyle.

Because of the importance of the industry locally and statewide, legislative provisions should be in place that protect breweries - particularly smaller ones. But an increase in the beer tax is long overdue, as are what it would pay for - tougher measures and increased programs that deal with drunken driving. That is, of course, provided Gov. Doyle doesn't find something else to divert the money to.