A coalition of state and national conservative organizations are pushing back against efforts to force Wisconsin’s popular wedding barns to acquire liquor licenses in order to operate.
The group urged lawmakers in Madison to forgo “using the heavy hand of government to regulate wedding barns out of business,” in a letter to legislators sent June 10. The letter was signed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, FreedomWorks, Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, the MacIver Institute, and the Badger Institute.
Forcing wedding barn owners to get liquor licenses would “infringe upon a farmer’s ability to freely rent out his or her barn to brides and grooms, devastating Wisconsin’s traditional wedding barns,” the letter states. “It ought to be rejected outright.”
A Rural Success Story
Wedding barns in the Badger State are an inspiration to farm owners nationwide, Martha Boneta, a farmer and president of the Virginia-based Piedmont Agriculture Academy, told Budget & Tax News.
“Farmers around the country can learn a lesson from their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin,” Boneta said.
In 2017, 500 dairy farms went out of business, and the number keeps growing. So Badger State farmers, buffeted by falling incomes and a steady decline in dairy farming, have renovated their traditional barns, turning them into highly sought-after venues for weddings, receptions, and other events. Wisconsin currently has over 150 wedding barns.
“Facing low commodity prices and sinking incomes, they have transformed their barns into wedding barns and profit centers,” Boneta said.
Wisconsin law does not require farmers to obtain an alcohol license for their wedding barns. Instead, alcohol licenses are handled by local governments, and most municipalities do not require family-owned wedding barns to have liquor licenses. Subjecting wedding barns to state liquor laws could force many dairy farmers to shut their barn doors because they would not fit under existing quotas for municipal liquor licenses.
The legal situation became murky after the Wisconsin Attorney General issued an opinion saying state law subjects event venues available for private rental, such as wedding barns, to alcohol retail permitting requirements, as reported in the February Budget & Tax News. WILL filed a lawsuit on behalf of two wedding barn owners in January 2019 seeking clarification of the law.
Unlike restaurants and bars, barn owners do not directly sell alcohol to anyone and they are not open to the public, where people can freely walk in and out. Alcohol purchased by the party renting the barn is commonly served at these events.
“Their commercial operations are completely distinct from those of bars and restaurants and should not have to have liquor licenses,” Boneta said.
Municipal Liquor Licenses
The wedding barns’ success has drawn the ire of the state’s hotels, restaurants, and bars, which are required by local governments to have liquor licenses. Representatives of the state’s powerful hospitality industry argue that not having to acquire a liquor license gives wedding barns an unfair competitive advantage. Since 2018, the Wisconsin Legislature has twice considered treating wedding barns similar to the way restaurants and bars are regulated, but both efforts failed.
The coalition letter states that wedding-barn opponents have suggested the barns could be regulated as “public places” where alcohol consumption is regulated.
“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,” the letter states. “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.”
Potential Financial Committee Action
The letter is in response to reports that the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will soon take up the issue of liquor licenses for wedding barns, even though such efforts have been rejected in the recent past, the organizations write.
Wedding barn opponents will use the Joint Finance Committee to tilt the regulatory playing field in favor of the traditional hospitality industry, says Lucas Vebber, deputy counsel at WILL.
“More than once special interests have used the final motion in the Joint Financial Committee to slip in the type of ideas that cannot stand on their own in a public and transparent debate,” Vebber said in a statement June 10. “Adding new red tape that threatens the viability of Wisconsin wedding barns is one of those bad ideas, and we’re concerned it’s going to happen again.”
Farming Is Different
Farms should not be subjected to the same rules as nonagricultural businesses, Craig Rucker, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), told Budget & Tax News.
“The agricultural sector has enough problems without being saddled with regulations that are completely at odds with the way our nation’s farms operate,” Rucker said. “Whether it’s New York imposing factory-style labor laws on its already struggling farmers, or the hospitality industry going after Wisconsin’s wedding barns, the meddling in agriculture by the political class and hostile lobbyists must stop.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT).
Bonner R. Cohen, “Wisconsin Attorney General: ‘Wedding Barns’ Subject to State Liquor Laws,” Budget & Tax News, Jan. 18, 2019: https://heartland.org/news-opinion/news/wisconsin-attorney-general-wedding-barns-subject-to-state-liquor-laws
“State and National Conservative Groups Express Major Concern over Potential Motion to Stop Wedding Barns,” letter, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty et al., June 10, 2019: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/state-and-national-conservative-groups-express-major-concern-over-potential-motion-to-stop-wedding-barns