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Alcohol lobby slips Democrat convention goers a Mickey

Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 17, 2019

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — A bipartisan bill to keep the Milwaukee-area party going during next year’s Democratic National Convention has stalled thanks to special interests looking to take another swipe at the wedding barn business. 

Sources say the Wisconsin Tavern League and some of their legislative allies have tried to slip a Mickey into the proposal, authored by state Rep. Mike Kuglitsch (R-New Berlin). The original intent of the bill would extend bar time to 4 a.m. for establishments in Milwaukee and surrounding counties during the convention, to be held in Milwaukee July 13-16. 

But, as one Capitol insider put it, “something simple got really complicated.”

Still smarting from a series of defeats on the wedding barn front,  sources say the Tavern League wants to see an amendment on the bill that would subject wedding and special event venues to the same liquor-licensing laws as taverns and other establishments that serve alcohol. Wedding barn owners say they would be forced out of business if they were compelled to obtain costly liquor licenses. The venues contract liquor sales on their premises, they don’t directly sell it. They contend they are not in the business of serving alcohol. 

Tavern League officials did not return a call seeking comment. 

An official from Kuglitsch’s office said he could neither confirm nor deny the bill was held up by the Tavern League, but he did say the measure is in a “holding pattern” while discussions continue behind the scenes. Kuglitsch, he said, wanted the straight bill temporarily extending bar times — not a legislative cocktail.  

Extending bar times in Milwaukee and other southeast Wisconsin counties in the shadow of the DNC requires a softening of current law. Closing time statewide is 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 2:30 a.m. on Saturday. The bill would have only temporarily extended bar times in the designated areas.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we roll up the sidewalks at midnight,” Wisconsin Restaurant Association Kristine Hillmer told the Milwaukee Business Journal in April. 

The association has urged Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Republican leadership in the Legislature to relax the law for DNC week. 

Tavern League officials have lobbied hard to, as they put it, level the playing field in liquor licensing. 

Former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel before leaving office in January, issued an “informal” opinion that the private wedding barns operate in “public spaces” so they need to be licensed. But there is no definition of “public space” in state statute. 

Schimel’s opinion wasn’t binding, and the Evers administration said it would not mandate liquor licenses for wedding barns. Before then, wedding barn operators sued the administration in a preemptive move to stop the enforcement of Schimel’s opinion. 

The Tavern League responded by encouraging its members to host private events “that do not have to comply with the laws of licensed businesses.” 

Just like wedding barns, however, bar owners couldn’t directly sell liquor to attendees of such private events. 

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