State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), a supper club owner and a former president of the Tavern League, is asking the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to begin requiring “wedding barns” to have liquor licenses as early as July 1st.

“In order for wedding barns to continue operating without interruption, I encourage the department to proactively take steps to ensure that operators become properly licensed,” Swearingen wrote in a letter to the state agency.

Swearingen described the July 1st beginning of enforcement as a “grace period.”

“The department should consider providing a grace period, allowing venues to continue business operations as they apply for the annual alcohol beverages retail licenses that become effective July 1st,” Swearingen wrote. “I also encourage the department to actively assist venues through the application licensure process; to provide them with the educational and technical assistance necessary to obtain licensure from their municipality.”

In his request to the Department of Revenue, Swearingen is relying upon an unofficial opinionissued by outgoing Attorney General Brad Schimel that agricultural event venues (AEVs) must acquire often hard-to-get liquor licenses from their municipalities, even if they are only allowing alcohol to be served at private events. Prior to Schimel’s non-binding opinion, AEVs such as “wedding barns” we able to allow alcohol to be served at events provided that they were not open to the general public.

Critics of Schimel’s informal opinion have said this interpretation of the law would have all sorts of unintended consequences, including banning alcohol consumption at a rented home.

Lucas Vebber, deputy counsel with with Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, sharply criticized Swearingen’s letter in a statement Tuesday.

“The law is clear: private citizens can consume alcohol with their friends and guests at private events and as long as the alcohol is not being sold and the event is not open to the public, no retail alcohol beverage license is required,” Vebber said. “Wedding barns have been operating in Wisconsin for years under this interpretation.”

Vebber said Swearingen’s letter is more about special interests than good public policy.

“Unfortunately, this is just another example of the status quo trying to use government to constrain successful entrepreneurs,” Vebber said. “Politicians and special interests are shamefully trying to use the heavy hand of government to shut down their competition. That’s just wrong.”

Rather than attack private businesses, Vebber said, the Department of Revenue should continue under the current interpretation of the law and pursue changes to “ridiculous, anti-competitive” laws that the Tavern League has supported in the past.

Eric Bott, the state director for Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, questioned the legislator’s priorities.

“The state should focus on proactive solutions that help people improve their lives through innovation and entrepreneurship instead of pitting individuals against each other to help one group get a leg up on the other,” Bott said in an email Tuesday. “Do legislative Republicans really want to own the shuttering of dozens and perhaps hundreds of popular small businesses in order to help special interest lobbyists?”

In his letter to the Department of Revenue, Swearingen claimed that the liquor license requirement would not be particularly onerous to operators of AEVs.

“However, it is important to note that event venues life wedding barns will not be put out of business under this interpretation,” Swearingen wrote. “Many opportunities exist for wedding barns to obtain appropriate licensure to serve alcohol at their events.”

For example, Swearingen claimed AEVS could acquire class B liquor licenses for selling beer or class B licenses to sell “spirits and wine.” If a community is already at its state-set liquor license quota, wedding barns that are also restaurants could also apply for “wine only” retail licenses or an “above quota” Class B license if the restaurant seats 300 or more.

However, a class B license for beer or a wine-only retail license would mean that the venue could not allow the serving of other alcohol beverages, including the traditional Wisconsin Brandy Old-Fashioned. As for the restaurant exceptions, most wedding barns are not full-service restaurants but merely weekend event venues that allow catered events, hence their popularity for weddings and small corporate events.

Because of the limited use of the agricultural venues, even applying for a liquor license becomes problematic because, given the state quotas, municipalities would rather save the issuance of licenses to full-time operations.

This is not the first time Swearingen and the Tavern League of Wisconsin have targeted competition from wedding barns. Earlier this year, the Assembly passed a bill that would have banned wedding barns that did not get liquor licenses. However, the bill died in the Senate when it was learned the proposed law would have banned most tailgating at major sporting events, and had other unintended consequences as well.

After that effort failed, Swearingen chaired the Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement which considered ways to regulate the wedding barn industry. However, that effort was dropped when Swearingen received the informal opinion from Schimel supporting the legislator’s position.

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, an organization which represents Agriculture Event Venues, declined to comment on the letter Thursday.

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