- The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s liquor laws, which also sets new regulations for private venues.
- The bill passed the chamber with bipartisan support and opposition, by a vote of 21 to 11.
- Among the bill’s most controversial provisions are liquor licensing campaigns that event venues warn will put them out of business.
The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate passed a bipartisan measure Tuesday to reform the state’s liquor laws and create new regulations for private event venues.
Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu introduced the proposal in a surprise last-minute amendment that repealed a bill to set standards for alcohol and tobacco retailers and replaced it with lengthy liquor law reforms nearly identical to those passed by the state Assembly in June.
The measure, which passed by 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, commonly known as wedding barns, to either limit the number of times they serve alcohol during the year or obtain a liquor license.
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Wedding barn owners objected to the proposal, saying the additional requirements could put them out of business. Currently, wedding venues do not require a liquor license to operate, and many contract with licensed vendors to provide alcohol at the events they host.
By bringing the bill to the Senate floor as an amendment, lawmakers circumvented a committee hearing process that allows the public to comment on proposed legislation.
“It’s disingenuous and disingenuous,” said Sheila Everhart, executive director of the Wisconsin Agritourism Association, which is working with the wedding barn industry to oppose the changes. “We couldn’t go and testify.”
Republican Senate President Chris Kapinga considered the amendment inappropriate. But in a rare move, the Senate overturned his ruling by a vote of 19 to 14. 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 can either obtain a permit that allows them to host events six times a year or no more than once a month — or obtain a liquor license that allows them to sell alcohol at as many events as they desire. .
“We are literally putting our feet on their necks and not giving them a way out,” said Democratic Senator Lena Taylor, who opposes the measure.
The bill has received support from Wisconsin wholesalers, retailers and breweries, banquet halls that compete with wedding venues, and the Wisconsin Tavern Association, a powerful lobbying group that represents bars, restaurants and taverns in the state.
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Supporters of the bill were largely silent during testimony Tuesday, but some lawmakers who supported the measure have previously said they believe the wedding barn industry needs more stringent regulation for public safety. Other supporters of the bill said it would put the wedding barn industry on equal footing with pubs and bars competing for the same customers.
Republican Senator Steve Nass, who voted against the bill, accused lawmakers who supported it of caving in to lobbyists instead of supporting small businesses.
“It’s about shutting down the competition,” Nass said. “The government today decides the winners and losers in this industry.”
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The Assembly, which passed a nearly identical measure in June with overwhelming bipartisan support, is expected to take up the bill Tuesday afternoon. Assembly Republican Majority Leader Tyler August said he was confident it would pass, which would send the measure to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.