I can remember back in 1993, when I was 20 years old. Gas was $1.19 a gallon, there was no Facebook, text messaging, or a perceived problem with our "drinking culture."
That's right, we're Cheeseheads. We like to drink, eat brats, and watch the Packers. No big deal, right? Well, some of your city officials seem to think it is.
When I obtained a city liquor license for my first tavern, Hawk's Bar and Grill, in 2002, I had to "voluntarily" agree to at least 10 conditions. Most of these had to do with drink specials - what could be offered and at what times.
Back then, this was a main focus of Madison regulators. Six months after Madison's bars decided to "voluntarily" ban specials on weekends, alcohol-related crime was down. Wow, it worked! Cheaper drinks really do equal more crime.
Not so fast! Two-and-a-half years later, the data didn't jibe anymore It showed that crime went back up.
It is foolish to put all of your trust in statistics. Data can be manipulated to sway people in all sorts of ways. For example, when the city talks about the density of liquor licenses, you might assume it's talking about bars. Actually, this number includes restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and even art galleries - any business that sells any kind of alcohol.
I could show you areas of town that have no liquor licenses and lots of crime. I could also show you an area of town that has many licenses and no crime. What does this prove? Perhaps there are other factors affecting crime besides the neighborhood bars...or art galleries.
In 2005, the city of Madison created a job position called the Alcohol Policy Coordinator, a.k.a. "Bar Czar," whose salary is half paid for by the UW-Madison. For the first two years, the Bar Czar collected data to help strengthen the argument that more bars means more crime. This led directly to the ill-conceived Alcohol License Density Plan, a law to eliminate any new liquor licenses in the downtown area. It was yet another instance of using statistics to further an agenda.
This January, Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. came up with ten ideas to help reduce alcohol-related crimes downtown. They included: raising the price of alcohol 20% where said crime was highest; doubling the number of underage drinking citations; and increasing the fines. This is a group with a tremendous amount of influence over city policy.
Recently, Madison Ald. Michael Schumacher was seeking support for his proposal to ban anyone with drunken driving or other convictions from getting a bartending license. What's next? Lawyers who break a law can't come to my defense?
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk showed concern about "people arrested for their third, fourth, fifth, sixth and even 13th drunk driving offense." How does someone even accumulate that many convictions? Now that sounds like something that should be addressed.
I don't deny that alcohol can be a serious problem. It makes some people violent and others act like idiots.
But for the vast majority of us, drinking isn't a problem. It's a way to relax, and maybe let down our inhibitions. Most drinkers don't do anything more impulsive than, say, strike up a conversation with a stranger they may want to meet.
Is that so terrible?
Every year a city health inspector stops by and combs over my bar for violations. I'm told what problems need to be fixed right away, in a week, and in a month. If the inspector comes back and I haven't fixed the problems, I will get a fine.
I suggest the city do the same when it comes to enforcing some of its liquor-related laws. I think it's good to enforce laws regarding over-capacity, over-serving, underage patrons in bars, and especially bar staff drinking. I have been in many bars over the years where the bar staff themselves are drunk. I don't have any tolerance for this at my bars and am quite appalled when I see it at others. The city needs to build relationships, not simply regulate.
Visit any small town and you'll see the important role that taverns play. You're as likely to find bars on Main Street as you are to find churches. And the only reason there's a bank is that the churches and bars need someplace to put all their money.
We didn't just start drinking yesterday. It has been a part of human behavior since the ancient Egyptians. But in Madison, some people think it's time to revert to another era. Say, Prohibition.
Hawk Schenkel is the owner of Hawk's Bar and Grill and Jade Monkey Cocktail Lounge.