Farms hosting weddings and other events are escaping the attention of a legislative committee that had targeted them for more regulation, but only because they are being threatened on another front.

The Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement is dropping, for now, consideration of ways to regulate Agricultural Event Venues (AEV), commonly referred to as “wedding barns.” Chairman Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) told the committee on Wednesday that an informal opinion from outgoing Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel that AEVs need liquor licenses has taken the matter out of the committee’s hands.

“In light of Attorney General Brad Schimel’s opinion, it’s my thought that we should just continue to operate under what he would agree is current law which is the fact that, in his informal opinion, that wedding barns do need to be licensed,” Swearingen said. “So we will move forward on that. Since the attorney general’s opinion had come out that way, I don’t see any reason for the committee to move on any legislation because it is already current law according to the attorney general.”

Swearingen also said that with a new attorney general and a new governor appointing a new head of the Department of the Revenue that he would wait to see how the new administration would regulate AEVs.

“I do plan on following up with the current department of revenue and the current department of revenue secretary to see if they will be moving forward on a change in their enforcement policy,” Swearingen said. “And, of course, moving ahead then, the new attorney general-elect and whoever the new secretary of the Department of Revenue will be on January 7th, it will be interesting to see how they interpret the current law that is being interpreted now by at least a couple of attorney generals that agree that wedding barns, or that type of venue, need to be licensed for serving alcohol. So there’s a couple of unknowns, and so effectively that opinion takes the wedding barn issue off of this committee’s table as well.”

The informal opinion from Schimel was requested by Swearingen, a supper club owner and a former president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

Schimel’s informal opinion stated that a venue is not private if it is available for rent by the public even if the events are closed to the public.

“A broad ‘private event’ exception cannot be supported by the text of the statute; there is simply no portion of the statute that would support a distinction between a public place that hosts an event open to all the public, and a public place that may be rented out for a limited private event,” Schimel wrote. “The ‘place,’ in both circumstances, is ‘public’ in my view.”

The distinction is important because AEVs were allowed to have alcohol served at events on their premises without first obtaining a liquor license as long as it was a private event, such as a wedding or a private company event. The liquor license requirement would be especially burdensome to AEVs because of the costs and regulations that go with them and the limited availability of liquor licenses in many Wisconsin communities. Wisconsin sets a limit on the number of liquor licenses for each community based on the community’s population, effectively limiting competition for existing members of the Tavern League.

The opinion by Schimel is considered informal because it was requested by Swearingen instead of the Assembly or a state government agency. It is not binding on Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.

Lucas Vebber, Deputy Counsel & Director of Regulatory Reform and Federalism for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) cautioned against Swearingen’s relying on Schimel’s opinion to change alcohol regulation enforcement in Wisconsin.

“He seems to be celebrating some kind of victory here and that’s wrong. An informal Attorney General’s opinion does not have the force of law. Any statement indicating otherwise is wrong and is misleading the public,” Vebber said on Tuesday. “As we said on Monday, we disagree with the Attorney General’s informal opinion. It is not, as the Chairman said, simply a statement of current law. It is a significant change that would have drastic impacts on Wisconsin small business owners.”

Eric Bott, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, is critical of Schimel’s opinion and the effect it could have on the wedding barn industry.

“We disagree with the Attorney General’s opinion,” Bott said. “If taken to its logical conclusion, it could outlaw a range of popular activities ranging from tailgating to hosting parties at rented homes.”

Bott added that the legislature’s pursuit of regulating wedding barns is out of step with public demand.

“Once again, the legislature is showing its tone deafness. The public widely supports entrepreneurship and choice,” Bott said. “Pursuing an agenda aimed at limiting individual liberty, entrepreneurship, and competition is bad policy and foolish politics.”

The Tavern League has been lobbying the legislature to require AEVs to get liquor licenses in order to have alcohol served at weddings and other invitation-only private events. The Wisconsin Assembly passed legislation earlier this year that would have not only required wedding barns to get liquor licenses but could have banned tailgating at major sporting events, as well as other far-reaching consequences.

The possible crackdown on farms hosting weddings and other private events comes at a perilous time for many family farms desperate for additional sources of revenue. The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal reports the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin have dropped by 13 percent since 2016.

Swearingen’s committee includes Pete Madland, the Executive Director of the Tavern League, and Mike Wittenwyler, a lawyer who defends Tavern League interests. There is no representation for AEVs on the legislative study committee, despite requests from the wedding barn industry.

Swearingen had hoped the committee would complete its work today. However, with the change in administrations and a new Department of Revenue secretary, the committee will meet again in December and may continue to meet in the spring to recommend changes to the structure of the Department of Revenue’s alcohol regulatory agency.

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