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Battle over wedding barns hits state Legislature

While the attack ads fly in the races for governor and U.S. Senate, another battle is quietly taking place in Madison.

The battle is over wedding barns.

A legislative Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement has met twice on this controversial issue.

Wedding barns are rented out for weddings or other private events and are not currently licensed to sell alcohol. But they still allow people to drink on the property. The Legislature earlier this session attempted to crack down on the venues but failed amidst fears the language would impact tailgating around Lambeau Field and Camp Randall Stadium.

Committee members at an Aug. 22 meeting discussed concerns surrounding the wedding barns, such as smoking on the property, underage drinking, fire codes and parking violations, as they expressed a preference for creating statewide standards to address those issues.

But owners of the venues said they're already subject to ordinances from their local municipalities.

"We don't need liquor licenses, because we are locally permitted, and we are regulated," said Bonnie Keyes, owner of Mulberry Lane Farm in Hilbert.

Chairman Rep. Rob Swearingen, a restaurant owner and operator and member of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, countered that implementing uniform standards and liquor licenses for all wedding barns would create a "fair playing field" for all venues.

The Rhinelander Republican also signaled he was open to the possibility of mandating a licensed bartender for private events at venues beyond wedding barns.

Swearingen earlier said he's looking to "move beyond the controversy and find solutions" surrounding potential changes to the state's three-tier system for the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol.

Swearingen likened regulating unlicensed venues and barns to the process in establishing regulations for ride-share companies such as Uber.

"Stop the music until we can get this properly done and regulated," he said.

Meanwhile, fellow committee member Sarah Botham, director of marketing for Botham Vineyards in Barneveld, slammed wedding barns for creating an "uneven playing field for the competition of business."

Swearingen also said one of his chief concerns was the Department of Revenue's interpretation of what would be allowable if state statute was not specific surrounding issues of enforcement.

But Revenue Secretary Richard Chandler stressed at the committee's first meeting that the agency's job is only to interpret the laws as written. He used the policy debate over wine walks — events where a group of retailers serve wine and snacks to participants — as an example of the Legislature changing state law. Before the 2015 change allowing municipalities to issue temporary alcohol licenses covering different locations over one day, DOR did not allow wine walks.

"We're not making a policy decision on whether wine walks are good for the community," Chandler said. "Sometimes the public thinks we are being too strict, or not strict enough."

James Wigderson, of Right Wisconsin, a conservative political website, has knocked the committee's effort.

He notes Swearingen is a former president of the Wisconsin Tavern League and says "he's determined to crack down on the competition. The committee is largely stacked in the Tavern League's favor and not one event barn owner is a member of the committee.''

Sheila Everhart, the president of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association and the owner of Everhart Farms, said there are already laws that cover many of the concerns of some of the committee members.

Everhart's organization represents over 150 members. There are approximately 250 event barn venues in Wisconsin and they generate $120 million in economic activity annually, according to a study the organization conducted, based on an average of $20,000 per wedding.

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.