State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) and the Tavern League want to use a closing time issue to close off competition from agricultural event venues, otherwise known as “wedding barns,” according to a report in the Milwaukee Business Journal.

The city of Milwaukee and a variety of business interests would like bars to be open until 4:00 AM during the Democratic National Convention in July. Bars in other convention cities are often open later, and the late closing time could accommodate thirsty delegates as they leave late nights at Democratic Party events.

However, the proposal has to go through the state legislature for approval, and that means it has to go through former Tavern League President Swearingen’s committee. Swearingen, according to the Business Journal, is going to hold the proposal up unless he can include the unrelated issue of regulating wedding barns in the bill.

“The delay at the Assembly State Affairs Committee that Swearingen chairs could scuttle the 4 a.m. bar-time proposal during the Wisconsin Legislature’s brief sessions in January and February,” the Business Journal reports. “The proposal has the support of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), among others, as a way for restaurants, bars and hotels to capitalize on late-night activity during the July convention.”

Swearingen may have a personal interest in the issue as he is the owner of a supper club in Rhinelander. For the last two years, Swearingen and the Tavern League have targeted agricultural event venues because of competition for the banquet hall business.

The Tavern League complains competition from agricultural event venues is unfair because they don’t have to get liquor licenses if they do not sell alcohol at events held on their properties. Instead, the persons renting the “wedding barn” space is responsible for providing their own alcohol.

Ironically, many of the providers of alcohol and bartenders for events at agricultural event venues are actual Tavern League members.

The joining of the two issues together by Swearingen has sparked criticism. Lucas Vebber of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), who has worked on protecting wedding barns from Swearingen and the Tavern League, said the new effort is an old tactic.

“Combining complex, controversial issues with urgent, popular ones is a tactic as old as time,” Vebber said. “These matters deserve to be debated on their own merits.”

Steve Nagy, a board member of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association and the owner of Homestead Meadows Farm, was even more critical of Swearingen’s latest tactics.

“Convention and tourism business is an important and growing part of Wisconsin’s economy. Holding this matter hostage to a personal vendetta felt by Rob Swearingen for the loss of his banquet business to wedding barns is clearly unethical,” Nagy said in a statement to RightWisconsin on Wednesday. “Holding up the legislation extending the hours of operation of establishments serving alcohol is further illogical, given that many of these businesses are members of the Tavern League.”

Swearingen’s legislative office did not respond to a RightWisconsin request for a comment.

Proponents of the later bar closing time for the Democratic National Convention told the Business Journal that the issue extends far beyond Milwaukee.

“This is going to benefit more than downtown Milwaukee,” said Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. “We continue to push it. I don’t know if Tavern League members are aware this (including the wedding barn proposal) could actually harm them.”

Steve Baas, senior vice president of governmental affairs and public policy for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, agreed with Hillmer.

“This isn’t just about Milwaukee bars,” Baas told the Business Journal. “This has a huge impact on taverns, hotels, restaurants and supper clubs all the way west to Madison, north to Oshkosh, Sheboygan and south to the state line. We hope that, in the end, lawmakers will recognize the potential benefit from this change and get it done.”

This is not the first time Swearingen and the Tavern League have tried to attack the wedding barn industry.

In 2018, Swearingen and the Tavern League proposed legislation that would have prevented wedding barns from operating without a liquor license. The bill actually cleared the state Assembly before an analysis by WILL showed that the bill would’ve banned tailgating at most sporting events. The bill died in the Senate.

Swearingen and the Tavern League returned with a stacked legislative study committee to come up with proposals to regulate wedding barns. One proposal had the unintended effect of banning alcohol at private parties, rental cabins, bed and breakfasts, and even hunting cabins.

Finally, Swearingen managed to get an unofficial opinion from outgoing state Attorney General Brad Schimel that wedding barns had to get liquor licenses. Despite Swearingen’s efforts, Gov. Tony Evers and his Department of Revenue decided in favor of the status quo.

If wedding barns are required to get liquor licenses, as Swearingen desires, some wedding barn owners will be forced to obtain reserve licenses for $10,000 while other wedding barn owners won’t be able to get a license at all because of the state’s liquor license quota system.

The Tavern League, of course, opposes allowing communities to decide for themselves how many liquor licenses they can issue, because limiting them increases the monetary value of the licenses.

With the liquor license also comes additional regulations and requirements, such as refrigeration and establishing relationships with wholesalers, that many agricultural event venues had hoped to avoid since they only host a limited number of private events per year.

There are approximately 250 event barn venues in Wisconsin and they generate $120 million in economic activity annually, according to a study the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association conducted, based upon an average of $20,000 per wedding.

In his statement to RightWisconsin, Nagy expressed his frustration with Swearingen’s latest attack on the wedding barn industry.

“This kind of gamesmanship represents the worst of political influence that is tainting the beauty and logic of our free enterprise system,” Nagy said. “I left communist Hungary in 1956 and came to the US as a 12-year old refugee to escape government run by greedy, self-serving, corrupt people. I hate to see it tainting our great democracy.”

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