Chalk one up for the good guys. At least temporarily. Owners of agricultural event venues, commonly referred to as wedding barns, will be able to continue to operate without applying for liquor licenses, according to Governor Tony Evers. The Department of Revenue under Evers will not change the rules despite a controversial unofficial opinion by former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Agricultural event venues are not typical banquet halls at taverns. As many of us have now experienced, a few farms in the state of Wisconsin have found a way to make a little extra money by hosting events on their property. They’re not full service bars, the events are invite-only, and the agricultural event venues don’t sell the alcohol at the events. Nonetheless, the Tavern League, the protectionist lobbying group, sees these wedding barns as a threat to their livelihood, even though these agricultural event venues actually bring more traffic to local businesses including local bars.
The point man for the Tavern League in the legislature, Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), a supper club owner and a former president of the Tavern League, first attempted to sneak a bill through that attempted to force agricultural event venues to get liquor licenses. That bill died in the state Senate when it was revealed the bill would have had the effect of banning most tailgate parties.
Then Swearingen chaired a legislative study committee to recommend legislation concerning the licensing of agricultural event venues, complete with Tavern League representation, but that effort failed when it was discovered that the legislation would have the unintended consequence of banning booze at deer camps, rental cabins up north, and even people drinking in their rooms at a bed and breakfast.
After getting a sympathetic unofficial opinion from Schimel before he left office, Swearingen asked the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to begin requiring “wedding barns” to have liquor licenses as early as July 1st. When Attorney General Josh Kaul and Governor Tony Evers were silent on the issue, the wedding barns (with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty) sued to force the issue.
Last week Kaul and Evers asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit without addressing the issue, and the following day Evers issued his statement that the Department of Revenue will not change its enforcement policies.
“While we were disappointed by the failure of the Department of Justice to provide clarity on the status of the interpretation and enforcement of the law regarding wedding barns and alcohol permits in our lawsuit, we are heartened by the comments from Governor Evers’ spokeswoman that indicate the Governor agrees with WILL that the law continues to mean what is says,” said Rick Esenberg, the president of WILL. “We trust that this matter will promptly be resolved in a manner that provides wedding barn owners and couples with the certainty that they can continue with their business and plans for special events.”
However, that still leaves the issue in limbo, as it means that Evers (or some future governor) could always change the rules. And given Evers’ track record of making false claims about not raising taxes and other issues, the governor’s word is not exactly trustworthy.
We’ll feel better when Kaul finally says something on the issue. Or, better yet, the legislature could clarfy the matter in a way that allows this growing industry that generates $120 million in economic activity annually to continue to grow and thrive. But that would mean disappointing their friends in the protectionist Tavern League.