Blake: Changes to liquor laws could be a tough swallow

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File photo - Todd Shepherd

File photo – Todd Shepherd

Liquor laws are like QWERTY keyboards — they were designed long ago and badly, but they’re what people have learned to live with and changing them is difficult.

Colorado’s groceries and convenience stores want to sell wine and full-strength beer and just filed a revised initiative allowing that for the November ballot.

There’s a possibility they could still file yet another version that would permit them to sell hard liquor as well.

Passage should be a breeze, right? Who’s not for the convenience of one-stop shopping and getting your booze where you get your bread and bananas? But in fact it’s going to be a hard sell.

In olden times the opposition to liberalized liquor laws came mainly from an improbable coalition of Baptists and bootleggers. Now, of course, it’s mainly the liquor stores. In recent decades they have beaten back numerous measures in the legislature — and, in 1982, at the ballot box — that would let food stores sell wine and beer.

But the liquor stores won’t have to fight the battle alone this time. The Colorado Restaurant Association, for instance, is on their side. According to CRA spokeswoman Carolyn Livingston, studies show that restaurants in states where groceries sell wine and beer sell less of both themselves.

Also allied with the liquor stores are Colorado’s booming craft beer industry and the nascent distillery and winery businesses.

Why would they be against the apparent expansion of their markets? They believe they can get product placement more easily at smaller outlets. But the initiative “is going to force independently owned liquor stores out of business,” said Curtis Hubbard of Keep Colorado Local, an anti-initiative trade group.

Hubbard recounted how an executive with Rockyard Brewing Co. of Castle Rock spent two years trying to get an appointment with a product decision maker at a grocery chain. During the same period he was able to talk to the owners of 150 liquor stores.



The pending initiative would allow grocery stores to sell wine and beer starting July 1, 2017. There would be no limit on the number of beer-and-wine licenses a chain like Kroger, Safeway or 7-Eleven could obtain. Under current law each chain is entitled to sell liquor at just one outlet in the state — so long as the store includes a pharmacy. Which is why, oddly, even Rite Aid is able to sell liquor at its store at 2870 S. Colorado Blvd.

It’s the chain license that sticks in the craw of the liquor stores. They’re not allowed to merge — a holdover law from the days after Prohibition was repealed. One owner, one store. Perhaps the grocery stores could soften the opposition if they threw the liquor stores a bone and worked to eliminate that un-american law.

But the grocery stores are playing hardball. “We’re not throwing them anything,” said Chris Howes of Your Choice Colorado, the pro-initiative group.   “They say we’re not interested in negotiating. We’ll invite them to our victory party. This is going to the ballot and we’re going to win.”

Other proponents point out that the single-subject rule regarding initiatives prevents any effort to tack on a provision permitting the ownership of multiple liquor stores.

Another unfair rule hampering the liquor stores: They’re not allowed to sell food unless it’s related to alcohol, such as limes, onions, olives, cherries etc.

That may seem like a silly prohibition. Why would liquor stores want to sell food? Well, why not? Stores often branch out and big Denver area liquor outlets like Argonaut, Applejack and Tipsy’s might have the ambition to start selling ribs, hamburgers and bratwurst — and move on from there.

If the groceries want to sell wine and beer, the legislature or the voters ought to level the playing field and let the liquor stores sell food. Voters are aware of the imbalance. Rumor has it that an attempt might be made in the legislature this session to liberalize the liquor rules in order to help grease the initiative.

File photo: Todd Shepherd

File photo: Todd Shepherd

Liquor stores have plenty of allies. They’re small, and customers often know the proprietor a lot better than they know their grocery story manager and they don’t want to hurt small business. Besides, the liquor store is often located close to the grocery anyway.

Not that the liquor stores will campaign just on pity. Expect initiative opponents to conjure up wild tales of school-age checkers and sackers at the supermarket guzzling wine on the job or smuggling bottles out of the store. That strategy has been tried before — and it’s worked.

One of the two pending measures would effectively eliminate 3.2 beer altogether. The vast majority of the 1,500 stores that sell 3.2 beer sell it for off-premises consumption and are eligible for the new “food store license.” But a few pizza joints are allowed to serve 3.2 to customers along with their food. Initiative proponents have to decide whether to make brewers happy by eliminating 3.2 altogether — or to indulge the pizza joints.

Under current law, liquor stores must be 500 feet from a school or college campus. But there’s no minimum distance for those 3.2.   Originally there was to be no limit for new beer-and-wine licensees either, but proponents thought better of it and substituted a proposal requiring the 500-foot minimum.

Trey Rogers, an attorney for the initiative promoters, conceded that would eliminate very few groceries from getting the new licenses. Why? Because the 500 feet is measured from the school property not to the grocery parking lot but to the building itself. And it’s measured by how people walk, not as the crow flies.

“I looked at the maps and you would have to be almost across the street from a school to be within the 500-foot distance,” Rogers said.

Opponents are expected to challenge the initiative’s title or allege a violation of the single-subject rule, putting the issue in the Colorado Supreme Court. It’s expected to rule by about April 1, giving proponents about four months to collect the required 98,492 legal signatures.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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