The message alerting Tribune editorial board members about a Wisconsin legislative committee's hearing about a tax increase on beer contained this subject line: "The sky is falling."

That line was meant to suggest that a beer tax increase even getting a committee hearing in Tavern League-saturated and brewing industry-dominated Wisconsin was akin to atmospheric collapse.

That subject line - "the sky is falling" - might be equally apt for describing the attitudes of many lawmakers and the governor as they consider the possibility of using a significant boost in the beer tax to fund enforcement of drunken driving laws and substance abuse treatment: That's how beholden to the industry Wisconsin's political class has been for decades. To even consider raising a tax - $2 per 33-gallon barrel - that hasn't been raised in four decades is considered heresy.

In support of the sharp increase ("sharp" if you consider steep less than three pennies for a 12-ounce beer), state

Rep. Terese Berceau, a Madison Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, points to Wisconsin's nation-leading stats in the categories we don't want lead: drinking among pregnant women, drunken driving-related fatalities, binge drinking among teens - the list is too long to recite unabridged.

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But perhaps the mere fact that the Assembly's public safety committee gave the idea a listen last week - for the first time in 30 years, according to Berceau - is progress.

The Legislature has already backed off from doing anything truly significant about drunken driving: Some members of the Assembly actually hailed its vote to make fourth-offense operating while intoxicated a felony as a great breakthough.

But now there's a movement afoot to make first-offense drunken driving a criminal offense and allow law enforcement to use sobriety check points. That would be the kind of "getting tough" that Wisconsin's devastating relationship with alcohol actually calls for.

The beer tax increase, which requires the $40 million a year extra in revenue be spent specifically on enforcement and treatment, is also a welcome idea.

Those are things very much in order, given the health and safety impact of alcohol on Wisconsin's citizens - especially if our legislators are unwilling to give police and prosecutors the laws needed to truly crack down on drunken driving.


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