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Wisconsin Legislature passes liquor law overhauls opposed by private wedding venues

Wedding barns must limit how often they serve alcohol or obtain liquor licenses

A close up shot of a multi-tiered wine rock with several bottles of wine on the top self visible.
Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature passed a bipartisan measure on Tuesday to overhaul the state’s liquor laws and create new regulations for wedding barns.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu introduced the proposal in a surprise, last-minute amendment that gutted a bill to set standards for alcohol and tobacco retailers and replaced it with lengthy liquor law overhauls nearly identical to those passed by the state Assembly in June.

The measure, which passed the Senate in a 21-11 vote with bipartisan support and opposition, would create a new division within the state Department of Revenue to oversee and enforce liquor laws. It would also require special event venues, known generally as wedding barns, to either limit the number of times they serve alcohol in a year or obtain a liquor license.

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The Assembly passed the bill Tuesday evening in a 88-10 vote. The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers who can veto it or sign it into law.

Wedding barn owners have objected to the proposal and say that the added requirements could put them out of business. Currently, wedding barns and other private event venues don’t need a liquor license to operate, and many contract with licensed vendors to provide alcohol at the events they host.

By introducing the bill on the Senate floor as an amendment, lawmakers circumvented the committee hearing process that allows the public to weigh in on proposed legislation.

“It’s sneaky and it’s deceitful,” said Sheila Everhart, executive director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, which is working with the wedding barn industry to oppose the changes. “We couldn’t go and testify.”

Republican Senate President Chris Kapenga ruled that the amendment was improper. But in a rare move, the Senate overturned his ruling in a 19-14 vote. The Senate also rejected multiple amendments to expand the ability of venues without liquor licenses to serve alcohol at private events.

Under the bill, wedding barn owners could either get a permit that would allow them to host events six times a year or no more than once a month — or obtain a liquor license that would allow them to sell alcohol at as many events as they wish.

“We are literally putting our foot on their neck and not giving them an out,” said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, who opposes the measure.

The bill has received support from Wisconsin wholesalers, retailers and brewers, the banquet halls that compete with wedding barns, and the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a powerful lobbying group that represents the state’s bars, restaurants and taverns.

Supporters of the bill were largely silent during testimony Tuesday, but some lawmakers who backed the measure have previously said they believe the wedding barn industry needs stricter regulation for the sake of public safety. Other supporters of the bill have said it would put the wedding barn industry on a level playing field with taverns and bars that compete for the same customers.

Republican Sen. Steve Nass, who voted against the bill, accused lawmakers who supported it of bowing to lobbyists instead of supporting small businesses.

“This is about shutting down the competition,” Nass said. “Government is deciding today the winners and losers in this industry.”

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