Beer battle continues in Colorado Legislature
DENVER State lawmakers rejected a proposal to allow convenience stores and supermarkets to sell full-strength beer late Wednesday following the protests of liquor store owners, who said the measure could drive many of them out of business.The House Business Affairs & Labor Committee voted 7-4 against the proposal (House Bill 1192) after listening to more than seven hours of testimony. Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, said the state’s current liquor laws don’t make sense, but he said the state should take a comprehensive look at all of them instead of trying to change them piecemeal.Right now, convenience stores and supermarkets are largely limited to selling 3.2 percent beer, but they say sales have tanked since liquor stores started staying open on Sundays under a law passed last year.Many liquor store owners reluctantly supported the Sunday change as a way to protect their businesses from a push by supermarkets to be able to sell beer and wine. An economic forecast commissioned by liquor stores found that allowing supermarkets and convenience stores to also sell full-strength beer could drive up to half of the liquor stores in the state out of business in the next three to four years.Darlene McBee, a liquor store owner from Pueblo, took a bus to the hearing with 25 other owners from the city. She said the bill would benefit big chains at the expense of small businesses. Janet Ribal, who joined her on the bus, said chains would be able to sell beer below cost and drive them out of business.”It won’t work for us,” Ribal said.But convenience store owners, including dozens of 7-Eleven franchise owners and managers in red and black uniform shirts, said they were small-business owners too and were hurting because of existing liquor laws.Former state Rep. Mark Larson, now a lobbyist for gas station convenience stores, said those business owners have taken a double hit. In 2007, lawmakers passed a bill allowing supermarkets to sell discounted gas, cutting into convenience store gas sales. He said the Sunday sales bill then ate into what was left of their thin margin.”Folks, these guys are on the brink of termination too,” Larson said.Liquor store owners and some Colorado craft brewers who also opposed the bill saw supermarkets as their main enemy.Eric Wallace, founder of Left Hand Brewing Co., said 80 percent of 3.2 beer sales is in supermarkets. If supermarkets were allowed to sell real beer, he feared their corporate buyers would favor big-name, national brands and be less likely to stock their shelves with new or distinctive beers. He said the state’s independent liquor store owners have helped foster the variety of beers Colorado offers.”How are we going to get any better? We already have the best,” Wallace said of the state’s system.Colorado has so many small liquor stores because liquor licenses are limited to one per person. Supermarket and convenience store chains can apply for a liquor license, but can sell beer, wine and liquor at only one of their locations in the state because of the one-per-person limit.So many people showed up for the hearing that, at its start, only about 300 were able to fit into the main hearing room and a spillover room where an audio feed of the testimony was piped in. About 100 people milled around in the hallway outside.There were still about 200 people left when the final vote was taken. Some cheered briefly before being told to stop. A group of liquor store owners hugged each other in the hall after the vote.
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