When the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee wraps up their budget work this week, they are likely to consider a “999 motion” that will contain a plethora of last-minute provisions for special interests to be snuck into the budget. One of those provisions could be a sop to the Wisconsin Tavern League who are out to destroy what they see as competition from Agricultural Event Venues (AEVs), commonly referred to as “wedding barns.”
A coalition of conservative organizations and the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association are raising the alarm on Monday, saying including such a provision would be bad for the free-market and the Wisconsin economy.
“This change in liquor licensing laws – which has been rejected several times in recent years – would infringe upon a farmer’s ability to freely rent out his or her barn to brides and grooms, devastating Wisconsin’s proud tradition of wedding barns,” the coalition warned in a joint statement. “As a complete affront to economic freedom and limited government, this change, if proposed, should be rejected.”
The coalition includes national conservative organizations Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, and four state conservative organizations: the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the Badger Institute, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin and the MacIver Institute.
The Tavern League wants state law changed to require AEVs to get liquor licenses. AEVs have avoided the requirement because they are not open to the public but are instead hosts for invitation-only events. They do not sell the alcohol provided on-site, leaving that to the organization or individuals who are leasing the space.
However, last December former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a non-binding advisory opinion saying AEVs are actually open to the public, invitation-only or not, and therefore are required to get liquor licenses. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ Department of Revenue is currently ignoring the advisory opinion, keeping to the prior policy.
The coalition of conservative organizations opposed to more regulation of the AEVs disputes Schimel’s interpretation of the law.
Wedding barns do not become “public places” under the liquor licensing law simply because they are available to rent, just like how your apartment or vacation home does not become a “public place” simply because members of the public rent it. In both cases, premises are being leased for the exclusive use of the lessee. Unlike a bar or a restaurant, an apartment or a vacation home—and a wedding barn—is not open to the general public.
Seen in this way, a wedding barn is nothing like a tavern. But special interests don’t like even the slightest competition and they are more than willing to enlist the government’s help in protecting them from new ideas and competitors. In recent years, there have been several failed attempts to amend the liquor license law to require a permit for certain “places that are not public places.” This, presumably, is an attempt to require farmers to obtain licenses for weddings at their barns.
But this would regulate wedding barns out of existence as many simply cannot obtain licenses either because they are unavailable (due to statutory limits on the number of licenses) or because a struggling farm family, who is not seeking to run a tavern but simply to earn a little money by letting others use their barn, can’t afford the investment in a license that is intended for a very different type of activity.
A past attempt to solve the issue legislatively in the Tavern League’s favor ended in embarrassment for Assembly Republicans when it was revealed that a bill they passed would have had the unintended effect of banning tailgating at many sporting events.
Wedding barns then became the subject of a Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement chaired by Rep. Al Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), a former president of the Tavern League and a supper club owner. Swearingen, who once compared competition from wedding barns to competition to taxis from Uber and Lyft, dropped the idea of recommending regulation of wedding barns when he was given the non-binding advisory opinion from Schimel. Swearingen then called for Evers’ Department of Revenue to require wedding barns to get liquor licenses by July 1, a request that has been ignored by the governor so far.
The Joint Finance Committee regularly includes 999 motions at the end of the budget process, regardless of the party that controls the legislature. They are often considered with little or no debate and often contain anonymously-authored items that would be unpalatable as standalone bills. One such 999 motion occurred in 2015 when some Republicans attempted to sneak into the budget a severe curtailment of the state’s open records law. Strong criticism from both the right and the left made the Republicans back down and remove the open records restrictions.
Legislators hoping that a provision favoring the Tavern League’s position could be snuck into the budget without anyone noticing will be disappointed, according to the conservative organizations.
“If the destruction of wedding barns is a good idea, then let it be debated as a standalone piece of legislation, rather than smuggled into the budget or snuck into a last minute amendment,” they said. “What is spoken in the dark will be heard in the daylight. In fact, we’ll make sure that it is.”