During sting operations, law enforcement would only be able to serve citations for serving alcohol to underage drinkers to bartenders, not bar owners, under a bill discussed in a state Senate public hearing Tuesday.

Under current law, either bar owners or bartenders can be served citations for serving alcohol to minors, even if the bar owner is not present, Rep. Tyler Vorpagel, R-Plymouth, author of the bill, said at the public hearing. The bill would change this so law enforcement can only serve citations to those who served the alcohol.

Vorpagel said the bill was in response to concerns from tavern owners who could be served citations when they are not on the premises.

“This kind of corrects that and says if a bartender is the one who serves the alcoholic beverage to an underage person that the bartender should receive the citation,” Vorpagel said.

Bar owners would still be able to receive citations, but only if they were the ones serving the alcohol, Vorpagel said.

But Sarah Jesse, Wisconsin Association of Local Health Department and Boards employee, said it is the employer’s responsibility to make sure bartenders are complying with the law and not serving alcohol to underage drinkers.

“This proposal would completely absolve the [bar owners] of the responsibility for repeated failures to comply with the law,” Jesse said.

Julia Sherman, Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project coordinator for the University of Wisconsin Law School, said the bill would get rid of this “important tool” to ensure bar owners are training their staff properly. If bartenders repeatedly serve minors, law enforcement should be able to serve a citation to the bar owner so they improve their practices, she said.

Currently, bar owners rarely receive citations for serving underage patrons because sting operations only happen twice every 12 months, Jesse said.

These sting operations, or alcohol age compliance checks, help decrease alcohol sales to minors by up to 50 percent, Jesse said.

Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said another concern is that bartenders do not always check IDs because they rely on bouncers to weed out underage drinkers. He said if a bartender assumes the person checking the door has done an adequate job, they should not be given a citation.

Vorpagel said it is the server’s responsibility to ensure they are serving people who are 21 or older.

But if bartenders have to constantly check IDs in a crowded bar, Sherman said, service could significantly slow down. She said if there is a problem, it should be solved locally rather than forcing 70 different communities to comply with a statewide law. 

The bill is a response to anecdotes from a few different bar owners, Miller said, and should not be generalized to impact the entire state.

Sherman said the reason the bill has not spurred more opposition is because it has gone through the Legislature too quickly.

The bill was introduced Feb. 4, passed through the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations Feb. 12 and passed through the Assembly Feb. 18. The bill now heads to the Senate for a vote.