Wisconsin lawmakers pass liquor law changes, with new private wedding venue requirements

A measure passed by the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate would create a new division in the state Department of Revenue to enforce liquor laws and set new requirements for private special event venues.

Associated Press

November 14, 2023

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A lamp and brick-paved walkway lead to a vehicle-sized entrance of a building with vertical wood slats, with illuminated hanging chandeliers and tied drapes hanging from its ceiling.

Chandeliers illuminate the interior of a wedding barn in Mount Horeb on Nov. 28, 2018. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate passed a bipartisan measure on Nov. 14, to overhaul the state's liquor laws and create new regulations for private event venues commonly known as wedding barns. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature passed a bipartisan measure on Nov. 14 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 state 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.

The Assembly passed the bill on the evening of Nov. 14 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 on Nov. 14, but some lawmakers 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.”

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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