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Butter bill spreads in Capitol

By Matt Pommer

Wisconsin may overturn its controversial 44-year-old butter-margarine law.

A repeal bill, sponsored by Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, has been readied for legislative introduction.

Current law bars the serving of margarine in restaurants as a substitute for butter unless requested by the customer. Most restaurants solve the dilemma by offering both.

But butter remains the staple of state institutions. The prison system, which feeds about 20,000 people, provides butter as required by law. Prison farms using inmate labor give milk to Department of Corrections institutions, but the agency buys butter from outside suppliers, according to a DOC spokesman.

In his memo seeking co-sponsors, Kooyenga told his legislative colleagues the butter law is an “anti-free market statute.” He also noted the additional cost in requiring butter be served to inmates.

Margarine issues aren’t new to Wisconsin. In 1895, the Legislature passed prohibitions against the manufacture or sale of butter-colored oleo. According to news accounts, a Janesville man in 1910 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for selling it.

The late state Sen. Gordon Roseleip, R-Darlington, must be churning in his grave over the recent bill. In the 1960s, he fought legislation letting colored oleomargarine be sold in Wisconsin, saying it tasted different than butter and arguing it wasn’t healthy.

During the 1960s margarine debate, then-state Sen. Martin Schreiber, D-Milwaukee, challenged Roseleip to a blindfold test.

Roseleip lost the taste test. Later he criticized Schreiber for fooling him.

But it wasn’t a trick. Roseleip’s wife and daughter would go to Iowa, where colored margarine was legal, bring it home to Darlington and serve it to him. The family never told the hefty Roseleip that they were slipping him the fewer-calories spread out of concern for his health.

His daughter Beverly Anderson, who would later serve 12 years as mayor of Darlington, said the family’s worst fear was a fatal accident on the way home from Iowa, something that would lead to her dad finding them in a sea of margarine.

Roseleip was a colorful legislator for 12 years. He championed veterans’ aid and the dairy industry.

In one speech, he sought to use President John F. Kennedy’s famous words regarding patriotism but quoted Kennedy incorrectly: “Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country can do for you.” Laughter cascaded through the Senate.

The draft bill now circulating would raise interesting issues for Republican legislators who dominate rural Wisconsin. It clearly goes to GOP goals of reduced regulations and saving taxpayer monies.

On the other hand, it could end up as a joke on late-night TV comedy routines.

Matt Pommer worked as reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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