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GOP leaders cast doubt on change to Indiana's cold beer law

Posted: 8:39 PM, Dec 13, 2017
Updated: 2017-12-14 01:39:03Z

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican leaders cast doubt Wednesday on the likelihood of overturning an Indiana law that grants package liquor stores what is essentially a stranglehold on the ability to sell carryout cold beer.

Though that effort appears doomed during the legislative session that begins in January, the same GOP leaders widely anticipate that there will be support to overturn a prohibition-era ban on carryout Sunday alcohol sales.

“Hoosiers want it, policy makers want it — it’s not that big of a deal, and it should happen,” GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma said at a conference previewing the coming session.

In recent months, convenience store owners had expressed cautious optimism about the possibility of overturning the decades-old cold beer law, suggesting that a groundswell of public support could help persuade lawmakers.

Currently, only package liquor stores and some restaurants and taverns can sell carryout cold beer, though grocery and convenience stores can sell warm beer and cold wine.

Despite an eye-catching “Chill Indiana” campaign and public opinion polls in their favor, more recent developments suggested an uphill fight against the clout-heavy package liquor store lobby.

First, a traditional ally — a trade association representing big box stores — went its own way in November. They announced an agreement with the liquor store lobby in which they would drop opposition to Sunday sales — which could siphon away liquor store business on a major shopping day — in exchange for the big box store group dropping the push for cold beer sales.

Then, earlier this month, a study commission lawmakers created to evaluate alcohol laws formally recommended repealing the Sunday retail sales ban, while narrowly failing to do the same for cold beer restrictions.

“I have had so many people come up to me and say, ’When is the monopoly and revenue stream from cold beer going to stop for the liquor stores?’” said Beverly Gard, a Republican former state senator who chaired the commission and supports removing the cold beer restrictions. “Cold beer won’t happen until the public makes its voice heard. They have in polls, but they’ve been pretty quiet otherwise.”

The debate has been going on at the Statehouse for years. Thus far, the Legislature has sided with liquor store owners, who have lobbied aggressively against change while donating generously to lawmakers’ campaign funds.

The issue threatened to derail the legislative session last spring, after a creative loophole was employed at two Ricker’s convenience stores. They started serving made-to-order food, which enabled them to get a license to sell carryout cold beer.

The ensuing debate pitted populists who argued for free markets against business interests, who say alcohol is a controlled substance that needs to be tightly regulated and overseen by a trusted industry.

Then lawmakers acted swiftly to rewrite the law in a way that Jay Ricker, who owns Ricker’s, said would make it nearly impossible to renew the license allowing him to sell cold beer.

Sen. Ron Alting, who is chairman of the Senate’s Public Policy Committee, defended the current arrangement and suggested that it was convenience stores — not liquor stores — that were greedy.

“You got to scratch your head and say, ‘Is this all about public policy, or is this all about income? — more money, more money, more money,’” he said.