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Tavern League bill hits ag venues at worst time

Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 7,  2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON —As the powerful Wisconsin Tavern League continues to push a bill benefiting booze sales, some in the agriculture tourism industry wonder how a bill that could put wedding barns out of business will help struggling farmers.

The bill, co-authored by supper club owner and former Tavern League president, Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), is similar to draft legislation made public in recent days, although somewhat watered down.

It mixes expanded bar times for a dozen counties during July’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee with a new license requirement aimed at making so-called wedding barns pay.

While the shiny object is the measure’s extension of bar times to 4 a.m. during the DNC, it’s combined — by design — with what critics see as a competition-killing provision. It creates a $2,000 biennial private event venue permit, which would be issued by the state Department of Revenue.

Sara Haase, owner and operator of Croix View Farm, a wedding barn in Polk County, said the proposal was not drafted with agricultural or alternative event owners’ input. In an email to several lawmakers, Haase said the venues are bringing in a lot of business to communities across the state. More so, they are bringing some much-needed income to farmers hit hard by challenging economic times in much of the agriculture sector.

“As a Dairy Farmers Wife, I know they are also supplementing their family income during a time when farming is seeing it’s (sic) most challenging environment yet.,” said Haase, who also is a board member for the Wisconsin Agriculture Tourism Association. 

Gov. Tony Evers and Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have pushed relief packages for struggling farmers.

“Once again this proposed bill will eliminate Agricultural Event Venues,” said Sheila Everhart, president of the WATA board of directors. “Another way to hurt and move the Wisconsin farmer off the land.”

Wedding barns and other alternative event venues have long been allowed to host events without having to obtain an alcohol license, a challenge for most given the limited number of licenses available. That’s because the venues don’t serve alcohol. They rent their spaces to event organizers, who are responsible for with contracting with licensed alcohol servers.

That doesn’t sit well with the Tavern League, which has tried and failed several times to push through license laws. The League argues wedding barns are getting special treatment, a leg up on traditional drinking establishments.

Swearingen, who has led several efforts to target his wedding barn competitors, did not return a call seeking comment.

The bill is backed by a number of alcohol industry stakeholders, including the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Wisconsin Beer Distributors, MillerCoors and the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association. Of course, the city of Milwaukee is on board.

Democrats and Republicans have said the extended bar time would be a huge boost for businesses catering to the 50,000 convention-goers staying and dining in southeast and south-central Wisconsin.

But why can’t it be a standalone bill? Why does it need to be combined with a permit provision for agriculture-related venues and entertainment rental properties? Because that’s the only way the Tavern League can pass legislation weakening their competitors, critics of the bill say.

Wisconsin Restaurant Association President and CEO Kristine Hillmer told Wisconsin Public Radio that a standalone bill would have a hard time passing this late in what promises to be a shortened legislative session.

“Just being pragmatic, we have to work with others,” she said. “It’s pretty much the nature of what happens in Madison.” It’s pretty much what happens when powerful interests sell out smaller competitors to draw the benefits of crony capitalism.

It looks like Republican leadership may be on board. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Rochester) certainly sounded open to the legislation earlier this week.

“I certainly haven’t said no to anything,” Fitzgerald told WPR. “And I don’t have members lobbying me to tell me that they won’t support anything. So we’ll see where we end up.”

Sen. Duey Stroebel, (R-Saukville), doesn’t sound like he’s sold on the idea. “… (T)he creation of a new $1,000-a-year fee for wedding barns is an abrupt departure from the policies set by both the Evers and Walker administrations,” he said in a statement.

The authors of the bill are seeking co-signers through noon today. It will then move on to the Speaker’s office for scheduling.

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