Sponsor of lowering drinking age downplays bar ownership

MADISON, Wis. — The lead sponsor of a bill to lower Wisconsin's drinking age downplayed the fact that his wife owns a campground that has a bar advertised as the "local cheers joint," saying Friday that concerns his family would financially benefit from the law change were laughable.

Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow said the idea that 19- or 20-year-olds would come to the Do Nothin Campground in Balsam Lake to drink at the bar there "is funny." He said most of those who frequent the bar are retired people who come to the camp for the summer.

Jarchow is one of three co-sponsors of a bill circulated this week to lower the state's drinking age from 21 to 19. On Friday, he announced that he's running for state Senate to replace Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who is leaving to take a post in Gov. Scott Walker's administration.

Jarchow's wife is owner of the Do Nothin Campground. On a statement of economic interest form that Wisconsin requires its lawmakers to fill out, Jarchow listed the campground as a business or organization for which he is an agent, representative or spokesman.

The bar is a member of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a powerful lobbying group. Another co-sponsor of the drinking age bill, Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen, is a former Tavern League president.

"I don't think that a north woods log cabin restaurant build in the 1930s is a real destination for people under 21 to be drinking," said Swearingen, who has owned the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander for the past 25 years.

Scot Ross, head of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said the lawmakers' ties to businesses that could benefit from a lower drinking age were a concern. He said the group was investigating whether they could be in violation of state conflict of interest laws prohibiting officeholders from taking action to benefit themselves or immediate family members.

"From a public safety and public health standpoint, Jarchow's bill is irresponsible. And from an ethical standpoint, it's indefensible," Ross said.

The bill faces long odds of being enacted into law. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos opposes it and even if it were to pass, the drinking age would only be lowered if the state would not lose any federal highway money that's contingent on the drinking age being 21.

Jarchow said he was sponsoring the bill because he doesn't like the federal government "extorting" states by tying federal highway money to the drinking age.

"I also don't like the idea that you're old enough to get killed in a war but you can't have a beer," he said.

Swearingen said the bill, introduced 31 years after the drinking age increased to 21, is designed to start a discussion about the merits of lowering it.

"Is it going to happen anytime soon?" Swearingen said. "Probably not."