Schimel: Wedding barns need license to serve alcohol

Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

A new informal opinion from outgoing AG Brad Schimel could threaten so-called “wedding barns,” according to a conservative think tank.

But Walker administration officials aren’t saying whether they are planning to change their enforcement standards for the venues, which are rented out for weddings or other private events.

Schimel in a letter earlier this month wrote that private events held at public sites would require the host to have an alcohol license in order to serve liquor. Current law generally doesn’t allow venue owners of a “public place” to provide alcohol to guests that rent out their property without a license. But the term “public place” isn’t defined in statute.

The opinion comes after Rep. Rob Swearingen asked Schimel to weigh in on the legality of wedding barns and other similar venues in a letter Nov. 8. The request, he said, came as he and other members of the Leg Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement reviewed law enforcement’s handling of the issue. Swearingen chairs the committee.

Schimel wrote in his response Nov. 16 that while statute doesn’t explicitly define “public place,” the surrounding context of the law shows, among other things, that it doesn’t become “non-public if access is temporarily limited to invited guests.”

“A broad ‘private event’ exception cannot be supported by the text of the statute; there is simply no portion of the statute that would support a distinction between a public place that hosts an event open to all the public, and a public place that may be rented out for a limited private event,” he wrote. “The ‘place,’ in both circumstances, is ‘public’ in my view.”

Still, he noted his informal opinion “is not meant in any way to bind or inhibit the role of the next Attorney General,” who Schimel writes “is obviously free to disagree with my position.”

AG-elect Josh Kaul’s campaign didn’t return a request for comment. Kaul beat Schimel to win the seat by a margin of just more than 17,000 votes.

Schimel, who characterized his letter as an “informal analysis,” noted he can only issue formal opinions if a legislative leader, chamber or state agency head requests it.

Swearingen applauded Schimel’s take on the venues, which aren’t currently licensed to sell alcohol though they still allow people to drink on the property.

“Ultimately at the end of the day this was all common sense,” Swearingen said in an interview Monday, adding Schimel’s interpretation of current law is how the Rhinelander Republican “felt about it all along.”

Still, representatives from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty warn if the administration plans to adopt Schimel’s opinion, “they should expect a fight.”

And WILL President Rick Esenberg knocked Schimel for his interpretation. He said the current law shouldn’t be read in a way to aid the Tavern League in its effort “to hurt, or even eliminate, their competition” from wedding barns and other venues.

DOR spokeswoman Patty Mayers said the agency is reviewing Schimel’s opinion. A Walker spokeswoman didn’t return an email seeking comment.

Swearingen says Schimel’s opinion has effectively taken the “wedding barn” issue off of his committee’s plate.

“It’s up to the new attorney general, Department of Revenue and secretary of the Department of Revenue to sort of reinterpret the law,” he said.

He said the Leg Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement, which is holding what’s likely its last meeting Wednesday, will instead focus on potential legislation regulating internet alcohol sales, ensuring retailers are properly permitted to ship alcohol into the state and verifying that the proper sales tax is generated.

See Swearingen’s letter.

See Schimel’s response.

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