Wisconsin wedding barns face new regulations under liquor-law overhaul signed into law


MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s wedding barns face new regulations under a liquor law overhaul bill they fought to kill but that Gov. Tony Evers signed into law over their objections on Wednesday.

The measure was one of four dozen bills Evers signed or vetoed on Wednesday.

Wisconsin’s craft brewers, large retailers like the Kwik Trip convenience store franchise and other producers, wholesalers and retailers all got behind the proposal that was hammered out in secret the past five years largely between Republican lawmakers and the multibillion-dollar alcohol industry.

It was poised to rapidly move through the Legislature in June before owners of predominantly rural facilities often located on farms that host wedding receptions and other events, but aren’t traditional bars, restaurants or entertainment venues, raised alarms. The Senate didn’t end up passing the bill until last month, in a surprise move that caught wedding-barn advocates by surprise.

The new law affects every level of the state’s alcohol industry governing the licensing, producing, selling and distribution of beer, wine and liquor. The so-called three-tier system, created in the 1930s, has been eyed for changes for years, but policymakers and the alcohol industry have been unable to reach agreement.

The three-tiered system was designed to prevent monopolies so the same entity could not produce and sell alcohol at the wholesale and retail levels. But the system has been criticized for years for not keeping up with changes in the industry, including the explosion of smaller craft breweries, the popularity of wedding barns, and other innovations.

The new law requires venues that sell or allow alcohol at special events, known generally as wedding barns, to either get a permit or alcohol license to operate legally. Currently, wedding barns and other private event venues don’t need a liquor license to operate, and many contract with licensed vendors to provide alcohol at the events they host.

Under the law, wedding barn owners could either get a permit that would allow them to host events six times a year or no more than once a month — or obtain a liquor license that would allow them to sell alcohol at as many events as they wish.

The law has received support from Wisconsin wholesalers, retailers and brewers, the banquet halls that compete with wedding barns, and the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a powerful lobbying group that represents the state’s bars, restaurants and taverns.

Evers said that updating the state’s liquor regulations and policies was “a priority for the safety of consumers, producers, and Wisconsin as a whole.” He said the new law will “ensure Wisconsin’s alcohol beverage industry grows and continues working for Wisconsin.”

Evers also signed a bill that would allow police and fire stations as well as hospitals to build boxes where parents can drop off unwanted newborns. The boxes must be accessible from both outside and inside the building, temperature-controlled and ventilated. Boxes must be equipped with an alarm that sounds whenever an infant is placed in them. Building employees must monitor the boxes’ interior 24 hours a day using a surveillance system and check the boxes at least twice a day.

He also signed a package of bills designed to track reported sexual assaults within the Wisconsin National Guard.

The new laws would require the adjutant general to submit an annual report to the governor and Legislature on reported sexual assaults within the Wisconsin National Guard; require the state Department of Military Affairs to create a database to help the Guard track misconduct; clarify that civilian authorities have primary jurisdiction over sexual assault cases in the military; and prohibits training officers from having sex with cadets or others undergoing initial military training.

A study committee made up of legislators, prosecutors and military veterans began working on the bills in 2022 after a scathing federal report found Wisconsin National Guard commanders for years had been flouting federal requirements for handling sexual assault complaints by choosing to keep complaints to themselves rather than passing them on to the Natural Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., for investigation.

Evers also vetoed three Republican-authored election-related bills.

One would have set the fee for obtaining the state’s list of registered voters to $250. Evers objected, saying that is not enough to cover the actual costs involved with providing the list. He also vetoed a measure that would have narrowed the definition of what is considered an indefinitely confined person for purposes of obtaining an absentee ballot. The third measure he vetoed would have required state identification cards for people who are not U.S. citizens to include the phrase “not valid for voting purposes.”