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Tavern lobby’s competition-killing cocktail

Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 3, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — The Tavern League of Wisconsin is up to its old tricks again, trying to slip a Mickey to lawmakers with a bill that would extend bar hours for the week of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee while crushing the emerging wedding barn industry.

The bill draft, written by former Tavern League president and supper club owner,  Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), among other Republicans, would require so-called wedding barns to obtain a liquor license. It also would expand bar times to 4 a.m. in a dozen Southeast and south-central counties — including Milwaukee and Dane counties — during the four days of the Democrat convention in July.

This cocktail of legislation should come as no surprise. The powerful Tavern lobby has been pushing its Capitol weight around for some time in pursuit of a licensure bill. As Empower Wisconsin first reported in October, the group has been trying to couple the bar time proposal with its hit on wedding barns since shortly after the Democratic National Committee selected Milwaukee as host city for this year’s liberalpolooza.

The legislation also would trim the hours of operation at small breweries while granting booze permits for Road America racetrack in Elkhart Lake and State Fair Park.

Steve Nagy, operator of Homestead Meadows, a popular rural Outagamie County wedding barn, said the Tavern League and their legislative allies are trying to create a sense of urgency to pass the bar time bill — and its attached proposals — before the end of the abbreviated legislative session. Ultimately, it’s a sneak attack aimed at driving competitors out of business, Nagy said.

The wedding barn proprietor escaped with his family from communist Hungary as a 12-year-old boy in the late 1950s. They found opportunity in America.

“So it is disappointing to me as an immigrant from a communist country to arrive at a place where everything is possible and having worked hard over six decades to fulfil my American Dream, to see that if you have money and influence you can do anything — including interfering with the pillars of democracy and capitalism.

Wedding barns, part of a growing agriculture venue market, play hosts, not bartenders. Patrons, often wedding parties, rent the space for their ceremonies and contract with licensed vendors to serve alcohol on the premises. Despite some confusion created by former Attorney General Brad Schimel in a formal opinion, wedding barns and similar venues have not had to obtain liquor licenses to host events.

That fact has burned 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.

But ag venue owners like Nagy say taverns have felt the heat from competition from a variety of emerging entertainment businesses, and they want to use legislation and more regulation to kill that competition.

The bigger problem for wedding barns is the limited number of liquor licenses available. For many, it’s not so much a matter of the cost of licensure, it’s the lack of licenses that would force them out of business.

Nagy says he hopes lawmakers will see the Tavern League’s transparent effort. 

“If I was a legislator with any sense of integrity and any sense of burden for my mission to be a fair and thoughtful legislator, I would reject any attempt to combine these things,” Nagy said.  

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