Grocers Lose Fight Over Full-Strength Beer

Bottle in Ice Shelby Report

A legislative effort to let Colorado grocery and convenience stores sell full-strength beer died in a landslide on the House floor Monday after a month of intense debate on the subject, reports the Denver Business Journal.

House Bill 1284, sponsored by Reps. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, and Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, pitted those stores against locally owned liquor stores and craft breweries for a fourth straight year. It was the first bill to make it to a legislative chamber floor for full debate, however.

The debate revolved around familiar themes. Liston argued for the need to allow a free market for full-strength beer and to break up the liquor stores’ “monopoly” on the product. Duran said it would create jobs where employees can collectively bargain for livable wages. Opponents said it would cause a good number of the 1,653 liquor stores in the state to close and, in doing so, would make it hard for small, local breweries to get their products on shelves.

Seeing that the general sentiment was going against HB 1284, Liston introduced a last-minute amendment that would have made the measure a referendum on the 2012 statewide ballot. But that was defeated soundly, and soon Liston’s effort fell as well.

Unofficial counts showed that just 18 House of 65 House members stood in support of Liston’s bill after a nearly three-hour debate.

Jeanne McEvoy, president and CEO of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, said afterward, however, that what tipped the scales was the testimony of liquor store owners who said they would be undercut by a change to a regulatory system that’s been in place for 80 years.

“They were very, very involved in letting legislators know this would kill jobs,” McEvoy said to the Journal. “What we’re hopeful for is that the out-of-state interests will finally listen and discontinue their attacks on Colorado’s small businesses.”

Grocery and convenience stores have sought the ability to sell full-strength beer ever since the Legislature voted in 2008 to allow liquor stores to operate on Sundays for the first time since the repeal of Prohibition. Sundays had been the biggest day of sales for the low-strength beer that grocery and convenience stores are allowed to sell, and those institutions lost revenues because of the competition with full-strength beer sellers.

But while HB 1284 proponents spoke of evening the playing field, liquor stores said they would be run out of business by out-of-state corporations. The bill would have changed state law that now allows each person to own only one license to sell beer of at least 4 percent alcohol by volume, allowing chains into the Colorado liquor business for the first time.

And craft brewers argued that if they were forced to try to sell their beer to national companies rather than to locally owned stores, they would be unsuccessful and would have less outlets for their growing industry.

Liston added several amendments to try to make the bill more palatable, including ones that would have banned grocery and convenience stores from selling beers above 11 percent alcohol by volume or caffeinated “alcopop” beverages that appeal to underage drinkers. He also said he did not believe an economic study saying that half of the liquor stores in the state could close if the bill passed.

A separate bill that would allow convenience stores but not grocery stores to sell full-strength beer awaits debate on the Senate floor. It could get a vote as soon as this week.

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