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Wisconsin Senate Nixes Plan To Extend Bar Hours During Democratic National Convention

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Justin Sullivan
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The state Senate rejected a plan Wednesday to extend bar hours during the Democratic National Convention.

An unexpected hot-button issue came up before the state Senate Wednesday: whether to keep the bars in Wisconsin open until 4:00 a.m. during the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. The convention, scheduled for July 13-16, is expected to bring 50,000 visitors to the city.

An Assembly committee passed a bill last week that would extend tavern hours during the event. While the Senate rejected the plan Wednesday, the issue isn’t over yet.

Currently, bars are open until 2:00 a.m. during the week and 2:30 a.m. on weekends. Democrats brought the bill to extend bar hours during the convention to the floor — as an amendment to a larger bill about investing in opportunity zones in Wisconsin. Those are designated areas where people may be eligible for tax breaks if they invest in those regions. The state Assembly meets for the last time of the two-year session Thursday, and Democrats thought this was their last chance to weigh in on the bar hour extension.

Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, thought it was ludicrous for Democrats to bring up the proposal in the context of his bill. He says he doubts convention delegates would take advantage of the extended bar hours anyway.

“I can’t imagine we’re going to have thousands and thousands of people between 2 and 4 in the morning, that have the energy to be out there still. I imagine they’re going to be expending a lot of energy during the day and trying to get some rest,” Kooyenga says.

Another person opposed to the idea is Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, a former police officer. He’s concerned the extended hours would cause more drunken-driving accidents.

“And to extend two hours, people to get drunker and driving on our roads is absolutely unconscionable. I could understand if we were doing this and focusing on having individuals remaining in a venue and not driving. But we don’t have that luxury here. There will be people driving. There will be people that if it stays open longer, they will be driving drunker,” Wanggaard says.

But Democrats supported the measure, including Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton. He says most people attending the convention in Milwaukee will be from out of town and wouldn’t be driving anyway. Instead, they would be taking cabs, or Uber and Lyft to get to the bars. Erpenbach pointed out the extra revenue the state could bring in, just for those eight hours during the convention.

“So, for those of you who are opposed to this idea, what you are saying to your districts is we don’t want the millions of dollars that the Democrats are going to spend in Wisconsin. Either that or you’re just going to do it because you just don’t like Democrats,” Erpenbach says.

Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson’s district covers downtown Milwaukee, where the Democratic National Convention will be held. She says small business owners in her district are excited about the opportunity to employ more people and bring in more money during the convention.

“So, what difference is two hours going to make? If you are a waitress in a bar and you're depending on those tips, it makes a world of difference. If you are a bar owner in an underprivileged area that has the opportunity to make a few additional dollars for a few additional hours during that period of time, it is the difference between you being able to make a profit or your business taking a loss,” Johnson says.

The Senate rejected the plan on a voice vote. It goes to the Republican-controlled state Assembly Thursday, where it’s expected to pass. The bill could then go back to the Senate next month as standalone legislation. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers supports the measure and his office says he’ll sign it.

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