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Assembly GOP limits area with 4 a.m. convention bar time

MADISON — The state Assembly walked back a bill Thursday that would have allowed bars across Wisconsin to stay open later during the Democratic National Convention this summer, tweaking the proposal to allow extended hours only for taverns in the southeastern corner of the state before passing it on to the Senate.

The convention is scheduled for July 13-16 in Milwaukee. Groups representing the state’s bars, restaurants and tourism industries who are preparing for an influx of 50,000 visits.

Lawmakers originally proposed a bill allowing bars across the state to remain open until 4 a.m. during the four nights of the convention, following the lead of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Both states allowed for later bar hours when the national conventions went to their states in 2016. Wisconsin bars currently must close at 2 a.m. on weekdays and 2:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

The proposal to extend hours ran into trouble in the state Senate; Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said senators were concerned about increased drunken driving and questions about why bars can stay open later for the convention but not other events.

Assembly Republicans amended the bill Thursday, the last day of the chamber’s two-year session, to limit the extended hours to bars in 14 southeastern Wisconsin counties: Kenosha, Racine, Walworth, Rock, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Jefferson, Dane, Ozaukee, Washington, Dodge, Columbia, Sheboygan, and Fond du Lac. Municipalities within those counties would have to pass a resolution allowing extended hours before they could take effect in those jurisdictions.

They also inserted new language increasing the safe ride program surcharge on drunken driving violations from $50 to $75. The Tavern League of Wisconsin runs the program, which provides free rides home from bars. The bill’s author, Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen, is a former tavern league president.

The Assembly passed the bill 85-12, sending it to the Senate. It’s unclear whether the changes will be enough to get it through that house. Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t immediately respond to an email late Thursday evening inquiring about the bill’s chances.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday the later bar time would be great for the state’s economy and give Democrats, who he says are “clearly out of touch with reality,” a chance to grab a drink after they return to their hotels late at night. Vos took particular aim at Sanders, the Vermont senator who won Wisconsin in 2016 and is among the front-runners in the Democratic presidential field this year.

“There are a lot of people in the state, who once they hear him speak, are going to say ‘I need a drink,’” Vos said.

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