Outgoing Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel says barns rented for events such as weddings are subject to the Badger State’s liquor licensing laws.
In an informal legal opinion requested by state Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), chair of the state Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations, Schimel says “wedding barns” used for private events must comply with the same state liquor laws as bars and restaurants.
Rep. Swearingen is the owner of the Al-Gen dinner club and former president of the Wisconsin Tavern League, which supports requiring event hosts to hold liquor licenses.
Lack of Definition
Wisconsin law states, “No owner, lessee, or person in charge of a public place may permit the consumption of alcohol beverages on the premises of the public place, unless the person has an appropriate retail license or permit,” Schimel noted in his written opinion.
However, “The term ‘public place’ is not defined,” Schimel wrote.
Private venues rented out for limited, private events are still public and thus subject to state laws covering places where alcohol is served, Schimel’s analysis stated.
In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services issued guidelines requiring agricultural facilities repurposed as public buildings to comply with the state’s commercial building codes. That action by state regulators has fueled the debate over whether wedding barns should have to comply with Wisconsin’s liquor laws.
‘Purely Private Events’
Dairy farmers renting out unused barns for additional revenue compete for business with bars and restaurants, and the Tavern League, a lobbying group representing the state’s restaurants and bars, wants to eliminate competition, says Lucas T. Vebber, deputy counsel and director of regulatory reform and federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL).
“It’s not surprising that the Tavern League wants to hurt, or even eliminate, their competition,” said Vebber. “But the law should not help them in their contrivance.”
The attorney general’s opinion would classify private events as public ones, says Vebber.
“These barns allow private individuals to host private events where they can consume alcohol that they legally purchased elsewhere and brought in,” Vebber said. “To characterize these purely private events as ‘public’ is wrong, and we disagree with the Attorney General’s informal analysis.”
Farms Decline, Barns Rise
Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017 and an additional 150 through mid-April of 2018 as prices of milk, cheese, and other dairy products fell. Grain mills, car dealerships, and hardware stores in rural areas have also felt the pinch.
For many hard-pressed dairy farmers, converting traditional barns to wedding barns has been a godsend. The Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association estimates there are at least 150 wedding barns in the state, a number expected to grow as farmers seize the opportunity to make up for losses caused by falling commodity prices.
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 cost of a liquor license in Wisconsin ranges from $15 to $30,000, depending on factors such as whether the license is for a single event or an ongoing business.
Currently, most municipalities in the state do not require liquor licenses for family-owned wedding barns.
Municipalities determine the number of licenses that may be issued in a certain area, based on formulas that account for population and the number of licenses already in effect as of 1997. If wedding barns are forced to comply with state liquor laws, they would be placed under the existing quota system, which may not allow some of them to stay in operation.
‘Another Example of Crony Capitalism’
M. D. Kittle, an investigative reporter at the McIver News Service, a Madison-based free-market organization, says cronyism is behind the attacks on wedding barns.
“Critics of the move to license wedding barns say it’s just another example of crony capitalism, special-interest-driven protectionist policy aimed at knocking out smaller competitors,” Kittle said.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Attorney General Brad D. Schimel, “Letter to the Honorable Rob Swearingen,” Informal Opinion, State of Wisconsin, Department of Justice, November 16, 2018