The Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement met in Madison on Wednesday to discuss how to deprive you of drinking beer or wine outside of Wisconsin Tavern League approved facility.
Oh, that’s not the stated purpose of the committee according to Assembly Assistant Majority Leader Robert Brooks (R-Saukville). “This committee is charged with reviewing the Department of Revenue’s regulatory and enforcement structure of the alcohol beverage laws,” Brooks said. “Additionally, this committee will look specifically at the need for additional clarity and education within chapter 125.”
Chapter 125 is the state statute that governs our state’s alcohol distribution system: a three tier system of producers, distributors and retailers. Thou shalt not attempt to be more than one, according to the law, lest the Department of Revenue smite thee with penalties and even jail.
The committee is being chaired by Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), a supper club owner and a former president of the Tavern League. He’s joined by Pete Madland, the Executive Director of the Tavern League, and Mike Wittenwyler, the legal muscle for the Tavern League. The committee is similarly stacked, although there is a winery owner, a craft brewer and a craft distiller on the committee.
If you were under any illusion that this committee would tackle changes in the law to make more choices available to more consumers to help the growing winery, craft brewing, and craft distillery businesses grow in this state, Swearingen quickly killed it.
After the introductions, Swearingen made it clear that his intent was to undo an advisory opinion from the attorney general that allows wineries to sell beer as long as it is purchased in a different room with a separate entrance. He also said the committee would look at “unlicensed venues,” such as so-called wedding barns that are allowed to have alcohol served on the premises provided that the event is private and nobody is charged for their drinks.
You might recall the last time the legislature decided to crack down on people having fun at their weddings outside of Tavern League-approved venues. The legislature almost passed a bill that would have banned most tailgate parties at sporting events. The bill passed the Assembly unanimously and only a memo from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty stopped the bill from sailing through the Senate.
By the way, there is nobody on the committee from the farm hospitality community despite their requests for representation even though this committee may recommend legislation to regulate it to death. King George III would approve.
Swearingen and others complained about unsafe barn conditions, food sanitation, insurance and even parking at these barn venues, all issues that could be handled locally. But because people are renting barns instead of Swearingen’s supper club, it’s anarchy out there. Swearingen even compared barn wedding receptions to Uber, failing to understand he was undermining his own arguments for keeping alcohol distribution in Wisconsin in the Stone Age.
Restaurateur Joe Bartolotta was also there to try to make committee members understand that consumers want more choices in venues, and that their demands are changing all of the time. He even told the committee he’s being asked to cater rooftop weddings now.
Unfortunately, his words fell on Swearingen’s deaf ears who announced he’s not trying to shut down wedding barns, he just wants them “properly licensed.” As what? Taverns? When most of the time they’re being used as actual barns? When each community is already restricted on the number of liquor licenses they can issue, a law that’s defended by the Tavern League?
During the meeting, Swearingen repeatedly told committee members that they would be unable to propose changes to the law to modernize our existing alcohol distribution system. Instead, Swearingen told them, they should contact the legislature. What Swearingen didn’t say: contact your legislator that already is beholden to the Tavern League and watch any bill to modernize Wisconsin’s distribution law die in a committee chaired by Swearingen himself.
However, Swearingen’s idea of putting into law a ban on wineries selling beer will be considered. When asked by winery representative Sarah Botham what’s wrong with selling beer (that would be bought from a distributor) at a winery, Wittenwyler explained that it would violate the tier system, as if allowing consumers to have more choices is like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. Fortunately Botham’s presence means that the committee will also consider codifying into law allowing beer at wineries.
The Earth will tremble and shake, to be sure.
Madland gave away the whole game when he explained why the Tavern League is opposed to changing the law for wineries. “For my people in the tavern industry, they can’t compete with a brewery that all of a sudden has a liquor license and a wine license,” Madden said. “They can’t compete with a distillery that has beer and wine now when they can get their product at cost and we have to buy everything through a wholesaler. It’s an unlevel playing field and it puts them at a huge disadvantage.”
It’s all about protecting his members from competition, regardless of the changing consumer world. And instead of figuring out ways to liberalize the laws to allow more competition among suppliers making life easier for his members, Madland is going to defend to the death the 1950s business model of a tavern.
The good news is the nonsense of creating an “alcohol czar” may have finally been defeated. The proposal, backed by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), would have created an agency specifically to enforce the state’s alcohol distribution laws. That idea was basically stomped on by the Department of Revenue when they pointed out that they closed over 800 cases last year, responded to 92 percent of inquiries within a day, and that the department in charge of enforcing alcohol regulations is already fully staffed. Instead, a liaison position within the Department of Revenue may be created to meet with different segments of the industry to answer questions about the law.
Swearingen says next month his committee will invite members of the wedding barn industry to testify. Expect fireworks if it actually happens.
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