A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers on Tuesday forced an update to the state’s alcohol laws through the state Senate even though the new regulation had been blocked in committee after the owners of wedding venues across the state claimed it would kill their industry.
The Assembly passed its version of the bill on a 90-4 vote in June, yet the Senate version was stalled due to the complaints.
The bill overhauls the state’s “three-tiered” system for regulating alcohol that has been in place since the 1930s and includes the loosening of some restrictions that have been in place for breweries and wineries. The legislation was the result of negotiations between lawmakers and various alcohol industry representatives. Left out of those negotiations were operators of “wedding barns” across the state who rent out venues for events yet do not themselves serve alcohol.
For years, wedding barns have been operating without much regulation. The bill would require those businesses to obtain a liquor license or apply for special event permits to hold weddings, limited to just six events per year. The venues would also be prevented from holding more than one event per month.
Despite the objections from wedding barn owners during the Assembly and Senate public hearings on the legislation, the authors argued that the negotiated compromise between taverns and bars, breweries and wineries, distributors and other alcohol producers over who can make and sell different types of alcohol and when they can do so was so fragile that it couldn’t be changed to accommodate those complaints.
The Senate version of the bill had been held up by the chair of the committee on universities and revenue, Sen. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield), who had refused to hold an executive session on the bill to advance it to the floor because of the provisions that he believes would harm the wedding venues.
In a procedural move, the backers of the legislation attached the bill as an amendment to another piece of alcohol-related legislation that was scheduled for a floor vote Tuesday. The tactic faced some hurdles because of Senate rules requiring that amendments be germane to the bill. Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) initially ruled that the amendment was out of order and couldn’t be considered, but the body voted 19-14 to overturn that ruling.
The Senate then rejected six amendments offered by Hutton and Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) hoping to address the wedding venue complaints.
On the floor, Hutton, Spreitzer and Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) accused the Senate of giving in to lobbyists from the state Tavern League to punish a successful industry within the state.
“We will be left with a bill that puts folks out of business and that is not what the state Legislature should be doing,” said Spreitzer, who noted that as a gay Democrat it’s rare that he sees eye to eye with some of the Senate’s most conservative members on an issue involving weddings. “It is wrong for us to pick winners and losers. It is wrong for us to do the bidding of the Tavern League and pit good operators, bars and restaurants in all of our districts, against wedding barns and nonprofit museums that are also in all of our districts. It’s a false choice.”
None of the Senators who voted in favor of the amendment and the bill spoke in support of its changes.
Ultimately, the Senate voted 19-14, with seven Democrats and seven Republicans voting no, to approve the amendment and 21-11 to advance the bill. The amended Senate bill needs to be approved by the Assembly before it is forwarded to Gov. Tony Evers.
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