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Wisconsin statutes prohibit owners of public places from serving alcohol without a liquor license.

That sounds simple enough, on the surface.

But what constitutes a public place?

The statutes don’t define that, which is problematic; liquor licenses can cost anywhere from $10 to $10,500, depending on the type. Municipalities also limit the number of licenses they issue.

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

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. So his opinion doesn’t carry the full weight of the Office of the Attorney General. There’s also the matter of him being replaced next month by Josh Kaul, his successful election opponent.

We know how we feel on the matter. We’ve long been advocates for level playing fields when it comes to business. A few years ago, in this space, we advocated for a mandate that online retailers pay state sales tax, just as their brick-and-mortar competitors pay.

In accordance with that principle, we do feel that wedding barns — and other facilities where private events such as wedding receptions are held — should have to be licensed by the state to serve and/or sell alcohol. The holder of a liquor license pledges to abide by the laws of the state, county and municipality which issued the license; should the holder be found to not be abiding, the license can be revoked by the governing body.

For us, the threshold is that there is a cash transaction, or transactions, involving alcohol.

But we are not inclined to view the wedding barn as identical to Bobby’s Tavern down the street. Our hypothetical Bobby opened his business with the expressed intent to serve alcohol every day his tavern is open, and obtained a liquor license to be allowed to do that. Most wedding barns are just barns — or meeting places, or kids’ play areas — when there is no wedding reception taking place. Therefore, the liquor license would not need to be the same as one issued to Bobby for his tavern.

We envision licenses issued on a 24-hour basis, say from noon Saturday to noon Sunday. The fee should be nominal — much closer to $10 than to $10,500 — because we also envision proprietors of wedding barns and the like passing the cost of the liquor license onto whomever is footing the bill; fathers of brides, for example. The wedding barn would not be able to sell alcohol until the next wedding, but then another 24-hour license for that event would be issued so long as the proprietor is in good standing with the municipality.

There should be a liquor license. But it’s a license for that event, not for as long as the tavern proprietor down the street plans to stay in business.

“We’ve long been advocates for level playing fields when it comes to business; a few years ago, in this space, we advocated for a mandate that online retailers pay state sales tax, just as their brick-and-mortar competitors pay. “In accordance with that principle, we do feel that wedding barns — and other facilities where private events such as wedding receptions are held — should have to be licensed by the state to serve and/or sell alcohol.”

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