By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 20, 2005 at 5:39 AM

{image1} Face it, we all have things we love and hate about Milwaukee. But, complaining and focusing on the negative leads nowhere. So, in this column we highlight issues (big and small) that we think need to be addressed, discussed and solved. Every "This Sucks" feature tells you why we think something sucks, offers commentary, opinions, solutions and, of course, gives you the chance to weigh in through our exclusive talkback feature.

What sucks: You can't buy alcohol in Milwaukee liquor and convenience stores after 9 p.m.

Why it sucks: Because government shouldn't tell you when to start and stop drinking, especially in the privacy of your own home.

OK, technically, they're not telling you when you can drink, only when you can buy alcohol. And you can buy beer and liquor after 9 p.m., but only if it's at a bar. So, why would your government want you out on the town until 2:30 a.m., running the risk of becoming or colliding with a drunk driver? That answer depends on who you talk to.

From one Milwaukee alderman's perspective, it comes down to powerful lobbying by the Tavern League of Wisconsin, who would rather have you spend your paycheck at the corner bar than in the neighborhood Open Pantry.

"One of the issues that you run into is a very powerful Tavern League in Wisconsin," says Ald. Jim Bohl. "It opens its memberships to liquor establishments, but it's not the liquor store league, it's the Tavern League. There is some measure of competition between liquor stores and taverns."

But for its part, the Tavern League says it's not interested in competing with liquor stores. Rather, it says these laws keep municipalities from competing with each other for who can stay open the latest.

"The laws are in place so there's some uniformity from one city to another," says Scott Stenger, spokesperson for the Tavern League.

"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," says Stenger.

Even Tom Vaughan, the owner of Downer Wine and Spirits, says he's content with the laws, which dictate that an establishment with a Class A Liquor license must stop selling at 9 p.m.

"As an owner of a small and definitely busy store, I don't own it, it owns me. If I was open later, then I'd have to work more," says Vaughan. "(Plus), a later time is more dangerous. That's the time when there are more, how shall I say, affected customers. We'd have to be using our judgment a little better the later it gets."

In fact, Vaughan says keeping his store open later might actually hurt business.

"I'm OK with it as an owner. If we were open until midnight, so are the grocery stores, and (liquor stores are) becoming a big box marketplace."

But Damian Legault, 26, a Milwaukee-based systems administrator and database programmer, says the restrictive laws have negatively affected him, especially on nights when he works past 9 p.m. Those evenings, he says he doesn't feel like hitting the bars and would rather pick up a six-pack on the way home from work.

"There's been more than one occasion where I don't really want to go out, but I'd like to have a glass of wine or a nice glass of scotch," says Legault. "Whereas if I go out, I'm going to spend $12 on a glass, when I can buy a whole bottle for like $50."

"The rule is certainly inconsistent," says Patrick Schroeder, 31, a project manager from Shorewood. "There are different rules for bar versus retail, which doesn't make sense to me. It seems outmoded and silly to me, at this point."

Adds Schroeder, "I figured the Tavern League would like to keep things as is, so you have to buy six-packs to go at the local bar for exorbitant prices."

Still, Legault doesn't advocate liquor stores staying open all night, but he thinks they could remain open until at least midnight.

"I don't necessarily feel allowing places to sell until like 4 a.m. should be the case, either, as then you'd get hordes of drunks riding out to the liquor store," says Legault.

Yet, according to Wisconsin law, there is some leeway and some communities can sell beer until as late as midnight at convenience stores. The Town of Madison, for example, keeps selling until 10 p.m., while the City of Madison sells until 9 p.m.

That's because the Wisconsin liquor laws also provide for Class A beer license, which means a store can sell beer or any malt beverage until midnight. The community sets the specific cut-off time, which in Milwaukee is 9 p.m. to coincide with the Class A liquor license rules.

"That's where the decision needs to be," says State Sen. Jon Richards. "The issue of bars and drinking plays very differently (in different communities)."

In Milwaukee, a big reason for cutting off at 9 p.m. is because of the city's sizeable college population. And more lenient laws at liquor stores mean more house parties. Or so says conventional wisdom.

"It has everything to do with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers)," says Vaughan. "Lobby groups are very strong. The wave of these groups got the Common Council thinking toward a responsible legislature."

"Most UWM students are great neighbors," says Richards, but there's a small group that really has a problem with any drinking at home, on or near campus, even if the students are of age.

But he, too, says he doesn't foresee the state Legislature changing these laws any time soon. Says Richards, "From the state's concern, as long as there's no state-wide issue of public safety, I don't think they would intervene into it."

Nor does Bohl see the Common Council making any changes, and he's yet to hear anyone complain about the rules in place. "I'm not convinced that there is a groundswell seeking a change."

And for Vaughan, who has worked in the liquor store industry around the country, he doesn't think Wisconsin's laws are particularly restrictive, either.

"I've seen blue laws that are a whole lot worse than ours -- complete dry counties that are state-controlled," he says.

It's just an issue of balance, says Vaughan. "The 9 o'clock law works well because it keeps everything in check."

What you can do to make it not suck? In a nutshell, not much right now. Considering that all the local and state officials, as well as industry experts interviewed for this story, said they are content with the existing laws, it will be an uphill battle to make changes. But they all suggested writing or calling local officials to express your opinions. You're also encouraged to chime in with your opinions using the talkback feature below.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.