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Wisconsin Senate passes liquor law overhaul

Wisconsin's Republican-run Senate voted Tuesday to overhaul state liquor laws, establish new regulations for private event venues, and create a new regulatory oversight department.

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate passed a bipartisan measure on Tuesday to overhaul the state's liquor laws and create new regulations for private event venues.

Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu introduced the proposal in a surprise, last-minute amendment that gutted a bill to set standards for alcohol and tobacco retailers and replaced it with lengthy liquor law overhauls nearly identical to those passed by the state Assembly in June.

The measure, which passed in a 21-11 vote with bipartisan support and opposition, would create a new division within the state Department of Revenue to oversee and enforce liquor laws. It would also require special event venues, known generally as wedding barns, to either limit the number of times they serve alcohol in a year or obtain a liquor license.


Wedding barn owners have objected to the proposal and say that the added requirements could put them out of business. Currently, wedding barns don't need a liquor license to operate, and many contract with licensed vendors to provide alcohol at the events they host.

By introducing the bill on the Senate floor as an amendment, lawmakers circumvented the committee hearing process that allows the public to weigh in on proposed legislation.

"It’s sneaky and it's deceitful," said Sheila Everhart, executive director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, which is working with the wedding barn industry to oppose the changes. "We couldn’t go and testify."

Republican Senate President Chris Kapenga ruled that the amendment was improper. But in a rare move, the Senate overturned his ruling in a 19-14 vote. The Senate also rejected multiple amendments to expand the ability of venues without liquor licenses to serve alcohol at private events.

Under the bill, wedding barn owners could either get a permit that would allow them to host events six times a year or no more than once a month — or obtain a liquor license that would allow them to sell alcohol at as many events as they wish.

"We are literally putting our foot on their neck and not giving them an out," said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, who opposes the measure.

The bill has received support from Wisconsin wholesalers, retailers and brewers, the banquet halls that compete with wedding barns, and the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a powerful lobbying group that represents the state's bars, restaurants and taverns.


Supporters of the bill were largely silent during testimony Tuesday, but some lawmakers backed the measure have previously said they believe the wedding barn industry needs stricter regulation for the sake of public safety. Other supporters of the bill have said it would put the wedding barn industry on a level playing field with taverns and bars that compete for the same customers.

Republican Sen. Steve Nass, who voted against the bill, accused lawmakers who supported it of bowing to lobbyists instead of supporting small businesses.

"This is about shutting down the competition," Nass said. "Government is deciding today the winners and losers in this industry."

The Assembly, which passed a nearly identical measure in June with overwhelming bipartisan support, was expected to take up the bill Tuesday afternoon. Assembly Republican Majority Leader Tyler August said he was confident it would pass, which would send the measure to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

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