The Tavern League: The lobbying firm that drove Wisconsinites to bars

In a state known for its beer and booze, Wisconsin is home to some of the lightest operating while impaired (OWI) penalties, mandated liquor store hours, and a majority of America’s “drunkest counties.” A person younger than 21 can even legally have an alcoholic beverage in Wisconsin with their parents at a bar or restaurant.

The Wisconsin Tavern League has lobbied on behalf of restaurants and bars throughout the state for decades. Now, their power may be diminishing as party politics begin to shape the narrative surrounding alcohol in the state. 

The Tavern League’s power, or lack thereof

Since 1935, the Tavern League of Wisconsin has lobbied on behalf of the “needs of the retail beverage alcohol segment of the hospitality industry in the State of Wisconsin.”

The Wisconsin Tavern League has long been associated with drinking nuances across the state. Alcohol sales at liquor stores are banned past 9 p.m. in the majority of the state. The Tavern League said they are not interested in competing with liquor stores. 

“The laws are in place so there’s some uniformity from one city to another,” Tavern League spokesperson Scott Stenger said. “I’ve never heard of a community saying they want to stay open later. I don’t think it’s a problem, [since] most people plan ahead.” 

In 2023, a new law in Wisconsin created a new alcohol regulation body, the Division of Alcohol Beverages, attached to the state’s Department of Revenue. The legislation changes alcohol enforcement from being at the point of sale, to the point of consumption. 

This notably affects “wedding barns” in the state, where couples provide their own alcohol at weddings instead of hiring bars or holding them there. Wisconsin breweries, large retailers, and the Tavern League were in favor of the change.

The bipartisan law requires these “special venues” to get an alcohol license or a permit to serve alcohol. Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) said the legislation was a “priority for the safety of consumers, producers, and Wisconsin as a whole.”

“This bill is not going to put anyone out of business,” Republican state Rep. Michael Schraa said. “They just have to change their business model a little bit.”

Mark Jefferson, who formerly served as executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, was recently hired to lead the Tavern League as their executive director.

The Tavern League has previously opposed legislation to ban smoking inside bars and restaurants. They fought against bringing the legal drinking age up to 21 and prohibited local governments in the state from requiring bar owners to use drivers license or state identification card scanners. They’ve also supported legislation to place the blame on the servers, not bar owners, when bars are caught serving underage people.

The Tavern League has, however, switched gears on DUI legislation, opting to support stricter rules and regulations.

The Tavern League currently offers the “SafeRide” program across the state which “provided 42,347 free rides home from 2,006 TLW-member establishments.” They credit the SafeRide program with the 44% decline in OWI convictions in the state since 2007. 

Light OWI penalties due to politics, not the Tavern League

According to Frank Harris, chief lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the tides have shifted in Wisconsin, from the Tavern League opposing drunk driving legislation to now being in favor of it. Fighting within the state’s legislature as well as the Badger state’s drinking culture may be to blame.

“Party politics is a bigger factor in the demise of OWI reform than the Tavern League at this point,” Harris said. 

Wisconsin has relatively light OWI penalties compared to other states. Jail time is not required for first-time offenders and the minimum fine is $150. 

Earlier this year, state Sen. Chris Larson introduced legislation that would have required an ignition interlock device to be installed in people with drunk driving offenses’ vehicles. 

State law requires the interlock device for those with two or more offenses or a first time offender with a blood alcohol content of .15, double the legal limit. Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia require such a device. 

“Senator Larson has been the most consistent anti-drunk driving voice in the WI legislature for the past decade-plus. He strongly prefers solutions like mandatory ignition interlock devices for all OWI offenses to mere penalty enhancers, which haven’t really worked for other crimes, but which continue to be proposed [mostly by Republicans] for a host of issues,” Justin Bielinski, a spokesman for Larson, told the Washington Examiner

State Sen. Andre Jacque also proposed a similar interlock bill, but party politics may be keeping OWI penalties the way they are, not the Tavern League. 

Harris recalled walking through the Wisconsin State Capitol last fall to testify on another DUI bill when he was told the interlock legislation would need a new sponsor in order for it to pass. He said he ran into an assemblyman who signed onto the Assembly version of the interlock bill and was told he would need to find someone, besides state Sen. Jacque, to sponsor the bill in order for it to have a chance at passing.

“He [the assemblyman] said you need to find a different Senate sponsor. ‘You know, the speaker doesn’t like Senator Jacque.’ Okay. Well, I kind of knew that but Senator Jacque agreed to author this,” Harris said.

Evers had a provision in the state’s budget this session to mandate interlocks. 

“Senate and Assembly took it out of the budget, you know, not necessarily based off a policy difference more so based off of the fact they didn’t want to give the governor a policy,” Harris said.

Larson’s spokesman also said that the state’s drinking culture is also what stops legislators from moving forward with stricter laws. Wisconsin consistently has many counties that make the top 10 “drunkest” counties in the US.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

“The more powerful influence in keeping Wisconsin’s drunk driving laws as loose as they are is not the tavern league — it’s the pervasive drinking culture that exists statewide,” Bielinski said. “Legislators may be hesitant to subject those in their social networks to prosecution for something so many people do.” 

The Wisconsin Tavern League did not respond to the Washington Examiner for comment.

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