Wedding barn owners still worried alcohol law rewrite will kill their business

A bill to rewrite Wisconsin’s liquor licensing laws that lawmakers tout as a necessary but fragile compromise between the state’s liquor manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers got a public hearing in the Senate on Thursday. Owners of “wedding barns” across the state remain worried that new regulations on their businesses could shut them down. 

The bill, authored in part by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), is an update to regulations on alcohol sales by brewers, brew pubs, wineries, distilleries and other alcohol venders. It’s a rare instance in which some of the state Republican Party’s core interest groups are at odds over proposed legislation. The Wisconsin Tavern League, a group that traditionally supports Republicans, was involved in forging the agreement, yet the state’s conservative think tanks and policy organizations have argued the effect on wedding barns is an example of the government being used to crowd out competition. 

At the hearing of the Senate Committee on Universities and Revenue, liquor industry representatives and wedding barn owners went back and forth for hours over the merits and faults of the legislation, which passed the Assembly in June by a 90-4 vote. 

The bill, SB 332, would make a number of changes to Wisconsin’s alcohol licensing and permitting system. The state’s liquor license system divides businesses into a number of different groups, including suppliers, wholesalers and retailers, selling different combinations of “fermented malt beverages,” wine and liquor. The 90-year-old system operates by alcohol producers selling their products to wholesalers, who then sell them to retailers. 

The system was initially created to prevent the rise of monopolies in the state’s alcohol industry, but those divisions have become murkier as the popularity of craft breweries, wineries and distilleries has grown and the divide between those businesses, producers and other types of bars and restaurants has become less clear. 

The bill would create a Division of Alcohol Beverages in the state revenue department to educate about the regulatory system and enforce the law. 

In addition to the new agency, the bill extends the hours that wineries are allowed to be open; changes the definition of fermented malt beverage to include products such as hard seltzers; allows small producers to sell other types of alcohol; creates a statewide permit process for bartenders outside of the already existing municipal bartender licensing system and allows businesses applying for liquor licenses to receive them from the county if they are located within a municipality that has already reached its limit.

Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) testify about the bill to rewrite the state’s alcohol regulations. (Screenshot | WisEye)

The bill would also expand the hours that bars and restaurants can serve during the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee next year. 

“The proposed legislation would add consistency across regulations but for brewers, brew pubs, wineries, distilleries and rectifiers and provide clarity to existing three-tier system,” LeMahieu said at the Thursday hearing. “The stakeholders and the alcohol industry have worked for nearly a decade to come together to address inconsistencies and concerns with our state’s alcohol regulations. SB 332 and AB 304 are the product of years of negotiations to form a historic compromise gating the collective support of 20 different industry organizations.”

Alcohol industry representatives overwhelmingly supported the bill, saying it’s not perfect and that every sector had to give up something to reach the agreement, but the changes are badly needed. 

“This bill is not perfect, it’s not perfect for anybody in it,” said Will Glass, owner of the Brewing Projekt in Eau Claire and president of both the Wisconsin Brewers Guild and Wisconsin Craft Beverage Coalition. “It’s not perfect for our industry, it’s not perfect for the wholesalers, the taverns, the event venues. This bill opens up the opportunity for our members, being brewers, wineries and distilleries, to give the consumers what they want. And we haven’t been able to do that for a very long time. So is this bill perfect? No. Is it pretty darn good considering the constraints that were put on all of the groups involved — as far as that you guys are all going to have to come to the table; you’re all going to have to work together; nobody’s going to be happy coming out of this?  I think it’s pretty good with that considered. So you know, I’d love to say we can punt this off another year and make it perfect. But we’ve got businesses that are struggling.”  

Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had concerns about the bill. Democrats, including Sens. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Kelda Roys (D-Madison) worried that the bill does not include enough resources for the Department of Revenue to successfully implement and enforce the new laws. Republicans, most vocally Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), complained that the result of the law would be the government getting in the way of successful businesses. 

“This is the heavy hand of government intrusion,” Nass said.

The wedding barn section of the bill would require these businesses, and any other “public place” that serves alcohol, to obtain a “no sale event venue permit” that allows the owner to rent or lease the property and allow beer and wine to be served at no more than six events per year and no more than once per month. The section exempts tailgating outside of sporting events and the consumption of alcohol at public parks and campgrounds. 

Under the bill, venues that hold more than five events per year and bring in more than $20,000 in revenue from renting the property would qualify for a “class B” license, which allows them to serve beer, wine and liquor at as many events as they want all year. In municipalities that have already reached their limit on providing these types of liquor licenses, the state would automatically grant the license. 

Lawmakers said the purpose of this bill was to bring this kind of business under the state’s regulatory umbrella. Previous interpretation of state law has allowed “wedding barns” to serve alcohol largely unregulated for decades. 

At the Assembly hearing on the bill, wedding barn owners objected to the proposed changes. In early August, a coalition of right-leaning interest groups including the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), Institute for Justice, Badger Institute, MacIver Institute, National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Tax Reform and the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, penned a memo complaining the bill tramples on “free market” principles. 

“Our opposition today is limited exclusively to the event venue changes,” WILL deputy counsel Lucas Vebber said in his testimony. “We would strongly urge you to just remove these from the bill. They serve little purpose other than restricting competition and causing hard working Wisconsinites to go out of business.”

Despite the fact that overwhelmingly the objections to the bill were focused on the wedding barn provisions, the bill’s authors were noncommittal in answer to questions from committee members about amendments. Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), one of the bill’s co-authors, said any changes could cause the delicate balance to collapse. 

“This bill is very fragile, which is why we’re hesitant to take any amendments on anything because all the stakeholders have come together and each of them are allowing the other to encroach on their territory,” Swearingen said. “And three-tier in Wisconsin comes with a lot of personalities in each tier, and so that’s where the rub comes. So this is the first time in probably 25 years we’ve approached chapter 125 with serious changes. And so that’s why I cautioned the Assembly at the time, and I’ll caution the Senate as well: iI is that fragile, should something get moved around or tried to make better, the whole thing could collapse, and that’s my biggest fear.”

originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F18%2Fwedding-barn-owners-still-worried-alcohol-law-rewrite-will-kill-their-business%2F by Henry Redman

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