Wisconsin Assembly Passes Sweeping Bill to Overhaul State’s Liquor Laws

The laws governing Wisconsin’s multibillion-dollar liquor industry would be streamlined and updated under a sweeping measure passed by the state Assembly on Wednesday that’s supported by groups from the smallest craft brewers to the largest national brewers, bar owners and alcohol distributors.

The massive overhaul to the laws affecting the production, distribution and sale of alcohol passed with broad bipartisan support. The measure now heads to the Senate for final approval. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who was involved with discussions of the measure, is expected to sign it into law.

The proposal would create a new division within the state Department of Revenue, which would be in charge of overseeing and enforcing the state’s alcohol laws. The absence of such a unit now has led to inconsistent enforcement of the law — and questions over how they affect new businesses that weren’t envisioned when the laws were enacted, supporters of the bill said.

The bill 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 company could not produce and sell alcohol at the wholesale and retail levels. But for years the system has been criticized for not keeping up with changes in the industry, including the explosion of small craft breweries and the rising popularity of wedding barns.

The bill would require venues that provide alcohol at special events, known generally as wedding barns, to be regulated in a new way. They 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 bill would also allow for expanded hours at wineries and would regulate them the same as craft breweries and distilleries. It would permit brew pubs to operate stand-alone retail stores and allow craft breweries to sell products from other out-of-state breweries. The bill would also create new guidance for contract brewing, winemaking and distilling, which is a growing segment of the industry.

The measure also creates a new statewide bartender license. Currently, bartenders are licensed by local municipality, a system that proponents of the change argued is cumbersome. It also allows for bars in 14 southeastern Wisconsin counties to stay open two to four hours longer than the current 2 a.m. limit — during the Republican National Convention next summer in Milwaukee.