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Even the Opposition Agrees Uncork Bill "Not the Worst Idea"

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Even the Opposition Agrees Uncork Bill "Not the Worst Idea"

uncork_ks

Slideshow-Wine-Guy.jpg

Kansas to revisit liquor law yet again

By ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI astefanoni@joplinglobe.com | Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2015 10:00 pm

Debates will again wage in Kansas as to whether the state should allow alcoholic beverages to be sold anywhere other than liquor stores, something that neighboring Missouri allows and has for many years.

“Kansans have been asking for this for decades,” said Jessica Lucas, a spokeswoman for Uncork Kansas.

Conflicts began in 2010 with the introduction of a bill to the Kansas Legislature, and continued last year with the introduction of a similar measure, which died in committee.

It concerned liquor store owner Timothy Scott, who said he is one of many liquor store owners in Southeast Kansas who aren’t yet convinced the bill is going to be a good thing.

“When a lot of people, like me, got into this business, we didn’t have the threat of the larger grocery stores coming into smaller towns,” said Scott, who owns Cowtown Liquor in Baxter Springs.

“Mom and pop businesses can’t go up against the buying power of stores like that," he said. "Distributors give them different rates. They can spend more on advertising. They’re already so well known — a brand name.”

In short: He worries it could put some liquor stores out of business.

This year, the group will again try to persuade lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill, but not in its original form.

This year, there is both a new proposal and a new leader: David Dillon, who retired as chairman of Kroger, the parent company of Dillons grocery stores. Wal-Mart, QuikTrip and Hy-Vee also support the coalition.

Lucas said the bill is to include a permanent cap on the number of liquor licenses the state issues — a provision designed to ease fears that the measure would spur the closing of mom-and-pop liquor stores.

Grocery stores could obtain their licenses only by purchasing them from small liquor store owners, in the event those owners want to retire or close.

The bill also would allow convenience stores in Kansas, currently limited to selling beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol and wine coolers, to sell 5.0 beer.

And it would allow liquor stores, which now may sell only alcoholic beverages, to also sell snacks, cigarettes, ice, mixers and other related items.

Keep Kansans in Business, an organization of liquor stores that has opposed versions of the bill in the past, remains skeptical.

“No one has seen the bill,” said Spencer Duncan, director of the group. “History tells us to believe it when we see it. Even though they’re saying the bill will do a lot of things, until we see it, I’m not sure that’s accurate.”

Duncan said his group’s opposition or approval of the measure would “depend on what the cap looks like.”

“Is it for two years, 10 years, infinite? Does it ensure that counties, some of which have one or two liquor stores, would retain the licenses there? We don’t want one in western Kansas to lose a store because a store in Johnson County wants to sell liquor.”

Duncan conceded that “in theory, it’s not the worst idea.”

“But in practice, we have to look at how they’re going to craft their suggestion.”

His group also is concerned about the impact on the state’s 12 dry counties when it comes to the 3.2 beer issue, and about convenience stores potentially selling craft beers, which often exceed 5.0 and can reach 11 percent.

Lucas said the new form was a meeting of the minds of both sides.

“Our customers want to be able to go to Dillons and pick up a bottle of wine if they choose,” Lucas said. “It does change the face of the market, which is of concern to many, but it’s our best faith effort and it’s a great compromise.”

Customer Pittsburg resident James Ryals said he would support such a measure.

“The ability to buy wine while shopping for groceries would be fantastic,” Ryals said. “Plus, Aldi’s has a great wine selection that we miss out on here in Pittsburg.”

Lucas said there has not yet been a committee hearing; she anticipates the bill being proposed “within a couple of weeks.”

“With this bill, liquor store owners have all the power,” she said. “No one can get it unless an owner chooses to sell.”

Kansas is one of five states, in addition to Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Minnesota, that sells only 3.2 beer in grocery and convenience stores.

“The people of Kansas have never had the benefit of what a competitive market brings: lower prices, better services, more options. They want the same opportunities they see across the border in Missouri, Nebraska, and 36 other states," she said.

Rep. Adam Lusker, D-Frontenac, who is in his second session representing the 2nd District in Southeast Kansas, said he is uncertain where he stands on such a measure, but noted his district — entirely rural — doesn’t have any large grocery stores.

He is concerned, he said, about how it might impact mom-and-pop businesses.

“The big winners seem to be those companies out of Bentonville, Cincinnati, Des Moines — they’re the ones pushing hard. I’m concerned about how it will affect local owners, as those are your neighbors.”

“But on the other side, convenience store owners have been hit really hard in the last few years on the price of gas,” he said. “They’re losing a couple cents on each gallon of gas, and with pay at the pump now, people aren’t going in as much for inside sales. So I can see the good to it for them.”

Lusker cited a public opinion poll done in 2013 that indicates “people support the system we have now,” he said.

The poll, done by Public Opinion Strategies, showed 66 percent opposed changing current law, while 29 percent supported changing it.

“But I’m continuing to look into it,” Lusker said.

Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, who is in his third session representing the 13th District in Southeast Kansas, said he continues to hear from constituents on both sides of the issue.

“My prediction, where we stand today, is that the liquor store owners and the big box stores are going to work out a compromise,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to pick a winner or loser in this battle.”

LaTurner visited with a liquor store owner from Manhattan last week who was “very much in favor of current compromise.”

LaTurner himself approves of changes to the measure, which he calls “improvements,” including capping the number of licenses issued.

“I think they’re getting closer,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way everybody can live with.”

“I’m still talking to folks back home, hoping we can get somewhere on it. It’s been a longtime issue, well before my time, and it’s time to get it done.”

Coalition

Uncork Kansas, a 1,700-member coalition, describes itself as a movement to “eliminate protectionist Kansas liquor laws” by allowing consumers to decide where to buy alcoholic beverages.

 **The original article cited c-stores could obtain a license to sell wine and spirits. We have contacted the Joplin Globe to change this and corrected in the text above. C-stores would only be eligible to sell real beer; licenses for wine and spirits would only be available to grocery stores for purchase.