The Tavern League of Wisconsin holds the title of largest trade association in the United States exclusively for licensed beverage retailers with their over 5,000 members. They are also known as one of the most influential lobbying organizations in Wisconsin government.
Zach Brooke is a contributor for Milwaukee Magazine and wrote an upcoming article about the Tavern League.
“The Tavern League is a lobbying organization, they’re no different from the thousands of lobbying organizations in the United States, probably hundreds in Wisconsin,” he says. “In this case, the members happen to be locally-owned bars of which there are many in Wisconsin and the Tavern League stands apart in Wisconsin from many other lobbies because of its perceived power and cultural reputation.”
While the Tavern League only has two registered lobbyists in Madison and are not in the top 20 of highest spending lobbies, Brooke says their influence partially comes from the fact that because there are bars and restaurants in every part of the state, they are able to organize everywhere.
“They have a bullhorn because members are all across the state, in every district and there are county level chapters of the Tavern League, so you know, the top brass cannot be everywhere at once but these chapters can organize, the taverns, you know, the members in their county,” he explains.
One major issue the Tavern League has taken on for years is the fight over criminalizing first offense drunk drivers. Wisconsin is the only state where a first-time drunk driving offender is treated with a citation and not a misdemeanor criminal offense.
“That fact is attributed to the work of Tavern League,” he says. “They will tell you that they have never apposed a drunken driving bill that targets the problem but that’s because in their view, first offense drunken drivers with a blood alcohol content that’s just above the legal limit of .08 are not the problem.”
The Tavern League claims the real problem is people with multiple drunk driving incidents or who are far over the legal limit.
In the past year, the Tavern League has turned it’s work towards COVID-19 — in particular, they have focused on overturning regulations like dining capacity limits. They sued the state to remove the limits and initially won their case and had the limit removed in early October 2020. A Barron County judge then reinstated the capacity limit and the Tavern League decided not to appeal that decision.
Brooke says that their efforts to overturn COVID-19 regulations shows that public health is not a top priority of the Tavern League.
“The Tavern League, in opposing that order, did not have public health top of mind. What they had in mind is protecting, you know, the rights of their [member’s] businesses to do business,” he says.
Which Brooke says is not all their fault, the point of lobbies is to advocate for a particular group of people or interests. Where it becomes a problem, for Brooke, is when legislators look to lobbies more often than looking out for all of their constituents.
“I do think it would fall to the public officials to, you know, protect public safety and if they’re not doing it, I don’t know why I would expect a lobbying organization to do it, or anyone else outside of government to do it,” he says.
As the pandemic drags on, Brooke says local businesses need help, but that those measures need to fall under public health guidelines that keep all Wisconsinites safe.
“If you are a state legislator, you have a responsibility to solve these very, very tough issues, including how do you protect people and save lives while making sure all these businesses don’t go out of business,” he says.