Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Locals: Liquor legislation has bitter bite

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 3/11/2013

A legislative move to expand liquor sales to Kansas grocery and convenience stores is all wet, one local lawmaker said.

While he said he remains committed to free market ideals, state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, agreed with small-business owners that the controversial measure — HB 2206 — would conflict with the areas’s best economic interests.

A legislative move to expand liquor sales to Kansas grocery and convenience stores is all wet, one local lawmaker said.

While he said he remains committed to free market ideals, state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, agreed with small-business owners that the controversial measure — HB 2206 — would conflict with the areas’s best economic interests.

“I’ve talked with a lot of people, and I don’t think it’s best for our district.” Jones said Monday, adding that the bill has yet to leave the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee. “They’re small businesses that have basically been given a set of rules to stay within to create a business, which they’ve done, and they’re doing everything they can. And it’s not like they’re getting super rich doing it. ... Then, all of a sudden, the idea is coming up to let the big box stores [sell alcohol], and that’s crazy, even though I’m a free enterprise guy.”

A coalition of major retailers, however, is hoping that the third time’s a charm for the bill, which has been submitted for at least the past three years. Uncork Kansas, which represents the interests of Walmart, QuikTrip and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, has lobbied the Legislature to support the measure it claims will revamp old laws and give consumers more choices. Current state law only allows liquor stores to sell full-strength beer, wine and liquor. Convenience and grocery stores are limited to selling 3.2 percent alcohol beer and wine. The measure also would allow liquor stores to sell ice, drink-mixers and snacks.

“Uncork Kansas is a movement to modernize antiquated Kansas liquor laws by allowing you, the consumer, to decide where you buy alcoholic beverages — rather than having the government decide for you,” the organization’s website says of the bill, which has failed to reach a vote in its past two attempts to become law. “The proposed new law will allow grocery and convenience stores to sell adult beverages and will lift restrictions on liquor stores, allowing them to sell items such as ice, mixers and snacks. It’s a win-win deal for everyone involved.”

Small business perspective

Despite the mutual benefits touted by the bill’s supporters, local liquor store owners are convinced it caters to corporations’ bottom line. Kirby Snider, owner of Blue Sky Liquor, 1410 S. Main St., Ottawa, said the bill not only would destroy locally made jobs, but also would place an added tax burden on Kansans.

“We don’t understand why a legislator would support an out-of-state corporation instead of local Kansans with a small business,” Snider said. “We feel like most senators and representatives that are educated properly can see that it’s not a good thing for the state of Kansas. The government would have to get bigger, too, because there would be more enforcement agents needed.”

Snider, along with more than 700 liquor store owners, is part of the Kansas Association of Beverage Retailers, which is lobbying against the bill. Through the years, the organization has worked to allow liquor stores to carry customers’ purchases to their cars, to be open on election days and to accept credit cards, its website said.

“Regardless of how many times the Uncork Kansas Coalition inaccurately calls the 761 independently owned liquor stores of Kansas a ‘monopoly,’ Kansas licensed liquor stores are not a monopoly,” the association wrote on its website. “The coalition’s representatives don’t know the difference between a monopoly-controlled marketplace and regulation with licensure. Why would we give faceless, out-of-state corporations that don’t comprehend the need for regulation and licensure — and mistake it as some type of market manipulation — the serious responsibility of selling alcoholic liquor for the state?”

Uncork Kansas apparently conceded to eliminating one portion of the bill, which would allow liquor stores to be the only retailers permitted to sell hard liquor, but not full-strength beer or wine, according to media reports. Even so, Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, contended Kansas liquor stores have met years’ worth of requirements set by the government and that adherence to the law warrants lawmakers’ support on their behalf.

“Liquor stores in Kansas have very strict laws under which they operate,” Tyson, who represents Franklin County in the Kansas Senate, wrote in an email. “I support these Kansas-owned small businesses. Since the bill is still in the House and being worked, it is impossible to know what will end-up in the bill. The bill may not pass out of committee or out of the House.”

Minor consumption?

While many are anxious about the bill’s effect on small businesses, other opponents assert safety as a concern. More alcohol vendors would likely cause more minors to imbibe, Richard Towe, owner of 3 Guys Liquor, 303 N. Main St., Ottawa, said.

“The only thing I don’t like about the [bill] is 18-year-olds being able to sell it,” Towe, who’s been in the liquor store business for about 10 years, said. “That’s just too much peer pressure on young people.”

Uncork Kansas affirms that law enforcement would be a top priority, as well as limiting minors’ access to alcohol. Nearby states, the group claims, have successfully demonstrated their abilities to police alcohol sales to minors as indicated by tobacco, lottery tickets and beer already available.

“Contrary to what some may say, an updated law will not increase underage drinking,” Uncork Kansas’ website reads. “In fact, according to a National Institute of Health study, making alcohol available at additional retail outlets does not increase underage drinking since minors rely much more heavily on social sources for alcohol (family and friends) than on commercial sources.”

Other arguments

Although facing fierce opposition, the bill has found allies with many consumers who say the measure provides more choices with a fair market price. In addition to improved options, the supporters added that the bill would create a free and fair marketplace.

“Free enterprise,” Terry Wayne wrote on The Herald’s Facebook page. “Many states allow this and liquor stores still thrive.”

“All business that have a liquor license should be able to sell,” Larry Fisher added during the discussion. “That way it will keep prices in check.”

While some during the discussion cited greater convenience in buying alcohol and groceries at the same stop, others said protecting small businesses is of greater concern.

“Why give preference to billionaires in Arkansas over our fellow neighbors in small business?” Caleb Correll, a former Ottawa liquor store assistant manager, wrote during the discussion. “This bill has been pushed by Walmart for three years. I sincerely hope our legislators put local small businesses owners first over a corporation in Arkansas that I think we can all agree doesn’t need any help from the state of Kansas to make money. Our local liquor stores in Ottawa do a great job of catering to the local tastes in alcohol and are very responsive to their customers.”

Uncork Kansas, however, argues that Kansas already is being economically disenfranchised by its current law. Through deregulation, the group contends that the bill will stop consumers heading to such border states as Missouri to pay lower taxes.

“Besides increasing convenience and choice, modern liquor laws will also provide a much-needed economic boost to our state,” the organization’s website reads. “By lifting government restrictions on retail liquor sales, we’ll attract new business and stimulate free enterprise and competition.”

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