DNC Bar Hours Bill Could Apply Statewide

Plan Would Let Cities In All 72 Counties Set 4AM Closing Time During Democratic National Convention

Wisconsin state capitol
A file photo of the state Capitol Building’s rotunda. Joseph (CC-BY-NC-SA)

A proposal to extend bar hours during the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee has spilled over statewide and could now open the door to a 4 a.m. closing time at taverns and restaurants in all 72 counties while the DNC is in Wisconsin.

The plan has also reignited tensions between members of the Tavern League and wedding barn owners, who would have to pay a new annual fee and face increased regulation if they want to continue allowing alcohol to be served on their properties.

Those provisions and others were added to the bill, which was formally introduced Monday, given a lengthy hearing Wednesday and scheduled for a committee vote Thursday as lawmakers race to finish their business before the end of the legislative session.

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It’s being pushed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association among other groups who want their members to benefit from the estimated 50,000 people who will visit Wisconsin for the DNC.

“I’m a Republican, and obviously this is a DNC convention, but money is not red or blue, it’s green,” said Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, the measure’s sponsor. “And I want everybody that comes to the convention to leave with no money.”

Right now, the statewide closing time for bars and restaurants is 2 a.m. weekdays and 2:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. If this plan becomes law, it would extend that closing time to 4 a.m. from July 13 to July 17 in cities that decide to participate.

RELATED: Plan To Extend DNC Bar Hours Hinges On GOP Support

While it’s being pushed by members of both parties, not everyone thinks the added hours are worth the added risks of more people drinking until the wee hours of the morning, especially given Wisconsin’s documented struggles with excessive drinking.

“Any time that you increase accessibility to alcohol, it does not help create safer alcohol environments,” said Maureen Busalacchi, public affairs co-chair of the Wisconsin Public Health Association. “So this is like throwing gas on the fire.”

Wisconsin is not the first state to consider later bar hours during a national political convention. Ohio and Pennsylvania passed laws to extend bar hours during the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia.

But the extended hours provision of Wisconsin’s bill has consistently grown since the idea was floated last year. In May, the restaurant association said it could cover Milwaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties. When it was circulated for co-sponsors in the Legislature last week, the bill referred to a 14-county region in southeast Wisconsin.

Under the latest plan, there’s no geographic restriction, potentially leaving it up to municipalities throughout the state to decide for themselves whether they want later bar hours while the DNC is in Wisconsin.

While the Wisconsin Tavern League helped craft the bill, Tavern League President Chris Marsicano, who owns the Village Supper Club in Delavan, said his group did not ask to take the 4 a.m. bar time statewide. He also said he did not think it would be widely used outside the Milwaukee area.

“I don’t know a bar owner in the world that wants to be at their place at four in the morning,” Marsicano told members of the Assembly panel considering the bill. “Outside of the convention areas, outside of maybe some of these hosting venues, I just don’t see it happening with any regularity.”

Businesses that favor the later bar hours testified Wednesday that they’re critical to helping Wisconsin make a good impression during the DNC, which could help it land other conventions in the future.

But in an interview after the hearing, Busalacchi disputed that.

“That’s making the assumption that the only way we can show off businesses is if we have alcohol,” she said. “There’s lots of things that Wisconsinites do that do not involve drinking.”

Wedding Barn Fight Reignites

Far more contentious among those testifying Wednesday was a provision added to the bill that would for the first time impose statewide regulations on wedding barns in Wisconsin.

The facilities have taken off in rural Wisconsin as landowners have rented out barns to host wedding ceremonies and receptions among other events. A barn owner will typically charge a rental fee to people who want to use their space, and then let those customers bring their own alcohol for guests.

Free market groups like the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin have supported wedding barn owners, arguing their business model should be celebrated by the state, not subject to additional red tape.

But they’ve drawn the ire of the Tavern League, which wants wedding barns to be regulated like traditional bars and restaurants, whose owners pay for licenses and face stricter regulation.

“There’s no oversight,” said the Tavern League’s Marsicano of the current state of wedding barns. “Without regulation there are those people that are going to take advantage of the loopholes.”

The bill authored by Swearingen, a past president of the Tavern League, would require wedding barn owners to pay an annual $750 fee for a state permit. Those who want to allow alcohol on their property would also have to take a state-sanctioned course on responsible sales of alcoholic beverages, a type of class that’s administered to bartenders.

That bothered Jean Bahn, an owner of Farmview Event Barn in Berlin, who recently sued the state over the enforcement of wedding barn regulations.

“We’re not regulated for the sale of alcohol because we don’t sell alcohol,” Bahn told lawmakers. “To me, there’s a big difference between me and a tavern.”

Efforts to regulate wedding barns last session went nowhere.

Swearingen’s plan would also create a 2 a.m. year-round closing time for sales of beer at breweries, which currently face no legal closing time. It would also extend the current year-round closing time for wineries from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. They would both be allowed to stay open until 4 a.m. during the DNC.

Mark Garthwaite, executive director of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, said that could create confusion for businesses that are both breweries and wineries.

“We would like the exact same for everyone who sells alcohol beverages because then there’s no confusion,” Garthwaite said.

Other provisions of the bill would expressly allow for alcohol sale at the Road America racetrack near Elkhart Lake and at State Fair Park.

While some Democrats support the bill, they’ve also been arguing for a separate, standalone plan that would extend bar hours for the DNC without lumping together other contentious fights over alcohol laws.

While Swearingen is pushing ahead with the bill, it will likely face at least some GOP opposition in the Assembly, and there’s no telling what the Senate will do with it.

“That is the million dollar question,” Swearingen said.