AG Schimel: Liquor licenses should be required for private events in public spaces, like barn weddings

MADISON — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel believes private events in public spaces require liquor licenses, drawing fire from a conservative law firm that fears such a stance could have a chilling effect on tailgating and wedding barn operations.

Legislators have been grappling with the question for months. Wisconsin statutes prohibit owners of public places from allowing booze without a liquor license, however the statutes don't define what constitutes a public place. That definition is crucial since liquor licenses can cost anywhere from $10 to $10,500, depending on the type, and municipalities limit the number they issue.

Republican lawmakers tried to pass a bill last session that would have required private property owners who rent out space for an event to have a liquor license before allowing alcohol to be consumed on the premises. The bill won support from the powerful Tavern League of Wisconsin and wineries, but it died in the Senate after the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative-leaning law firm, complained that it could end tailgating.

State Rep. Rob Swearingen, chairman of a special joint legislative committee studying alcohol enforcement, asked Schimel on Nov. 8 for his interpretation of the statutes.

Schimel responded with a Nov. 16 letter to Swearingen saying there's no difference between a public place that hosts an event open to everyone and a place rented out to the public. Essentially, Schimel concluded that events limited to invited guests require liquor licenses before alcohol can be consumed on the premises.

Schimel called his response an "informal analysis," saying he can issue formal legal opinions only at the request of a legislative chamber, legislative leaders or state agency heads.

WILL issued a news release Monday threatening to sue if state regulators adopt Schimel's stance as a basis for enforcement. The firm called the analysis an "extreme interpretation."

The release didn't mention tailgating, but it warned that the analysis represents a major threat to the wedding barn industry.

Rick Esenberg, WILL's president and general counsel, said in the release that the Tavern League wants to hurt competitors and that Schimel shouldn't interpret the law to help the league.

Tavern League lobbyist Scott Stenger said in an email to The Associated Press that Schimel's analysis isn't a surprise since it upholds the law.

"More importantly, it is what the public expects from those who provide alcohol — to be licensed," Stenger wrote. "We have nothing against wedding/party barns and wish them success competing by the same rules and laws everyone else does. They simply need to acquire the appropriate license and they can continue doing business."

The Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, which promotes farm tourism such as wedding barns, issued a statement saying "business organizations" are trying to manipulate competition and government involvement creates winners and losers as well as distorts the economy.

Swearingen, a Rhinelander Republican, said his committee has focused on how to handle unlicensed venues. Most members felt venues need to be licensed and the panel was considering legislation to force that, he said. A bill probably isn't necessary now given Schimel's analysis, he said. He echoed Stenger, saying venues just need to get licensed and nobody will go out of business.

Right-wing groups have been trying to "muddy the waters" by saying legislators wanted to ban tailgating, he added.

"Nobody ever, ever intended to limit tailgating," he said.