The Thirsty Beagle: Oklahoma beer legislation a wolf in wolf's clothing?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Oklahoma beer legislation a wolf in wolf's clothing?

I've had a full week to sit back and reflect on the first Oklahoma Craft Beer Summit hosted at Oak & Ore, and I think waiting this long to formulate a written opinion on the topic was a good idea.

Taking time to digest what happened at Oak & Ore was good primarily because it gave me time to visit with some industry folks and really get a pulse for where we're going from here.

First, how about some general impressions on the event?

I'm always amazed at the turnout for beer events here in OKC. Maybe I should stop being that way, since most events end up being well-attended. The summit at Oak & Ore, held on Jan. 13, was no exception. Clearly the craft beer culture is growing, and people are showing out to prove it.

The representation from the state's craft brewers was excellent as well. Short of TapWerks' Oklahoma Craft Beer Festival, or Wild Brew, that may have been the most local brewers I've seen in one place at one time.

I've heard some complaints about acoustics and logistics. While improvements could have been made so people sitting nearer the front door could hear the speakers just as well as those sitting near the podium, some of that simply has to be chalked up to the layout of the pub.

But let's move on from the formalities. What about the messaging? A lot of it was not surprising.

We're behind the times. Prohibition sucked. Better laws will allow more business and tourism. Craft beer in Oklahoma is primed to grow. All important points, but all points that won't take anyone by storm.

What stood out to me was the short speech given by state Sen. Stephanie Bice.

Bice has been adopted by the craft beer community as the sweetheart of the movement. She introduced Senate Bill 383, which started out humbly as the refrigeration bill, but has now morphed into the chariot that likely will carry Oklahoma's alcohol reform state question right onto the ballot in November.

Even Bice admitted being surprised by the reaction to her bill, which she explained she introduced because "I like cold beer." Who can't get behind that, right? She professed her admiration for all of the state's craft brewers, and her desire to make things better for the consumer. But her answers to a couple questions have stuck with me more so each and every day since the summit.

To a question about what her colleagues in the Senate think about alcohol reform:

"I will not speak for my colleagues, because I think in all fairness, I think they need to see the legislation. We're currently writing that -- we're in the process of writing the referendum, or the state question, and how that will be laid out. And then there is an unbelievable amount of rewrites to Title 37, which is where all the alcohol statutes are. To give you some perspective, there are I believe 200 pages to Title 37. It's a tremendous amount of information that we have to look at and analyze and potentially rewrite."

And then to a question about whether we have a realistic chance to get reform passed:

"I feel very confident about it. I've been working ever since the end of last session to bring these parties together and get perspectives from everyone to put together what I thought was reasonable legislation. That being said, there is also the possibility of an initiative petition by an outside group. If that happens, the Legislature will have no control over it. That sounds great in theory to some, but the reality is, we lose a lot of control over things that are really important to some entities. So, I want to fix this legislatively. I don't want it to end up in an initiative petition route, which is collecting signatures and getting it on the ballot that route. But I do feel pretty confident that something will be done, one way or another."

OK, let's read between the lines here. The first answer seems innocuous enough. But if I could put on my amateur psychologist hat, I think it's a classic scene-setting statement. Listen people -- I'm going to tell you how hard this will be. It's so difficult, you wouldn't believe it. You should be happy we're (and just who is "we're" is the question we all should be asking) up here at the Capitol figuring this out for you. Hold on to this point for a second.

Let's look at the second answer. This one is more to the point, because without saying it, I'm fairly certain Bice is tipping her cap to Anheuser Busch and the state's other big distributors (read: the people with the most money and seemingly the most to lose if things don't work out their way). "We lose a lot of control over things that are really important to some entities," she said. Who are those entities that won't get what they want if we go the initiative petition route? The consumer? To me, that's who drives the initiative petition process.

Tell me if I'm wrong -- and I'd be happy to be wrong on this point -- but I think we all know the "we're" in the "we're in the process" is the same as the "some entities" Bice mentions. It's the lobbyists for AB and the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma. (Insert dramatic music!)

Seriously, though, we shouldn't be surprised to know money talks. That's how the political process works in Oklahoma and in America. And that's what is at work in the fight for alcohol reform now. I think I've been pretty consistent in making that point.

Still, you'll notice I called it a fight. While to me Bice's language made it seem like the text of the state question and our future constitution is somewhat predetermined at this point, I do believe there is room to fight.

First and foremost, if you're a craft beer fan, you need to fight for the right for brewers to sell their full line-up of beer on-premise. I can't underscore this point enough. Forget refrigeration. Forget grocery stores. Even forget single-strength. The absolute most essential win for craft beer in Oklahoma is point-of-production sales. So take that message to Bice and your local legislator. Even if the little guy can't control what the state question will say, we should at least fight to have craft beer considered in the process. Hopefully that is what the Craft Brewers Association of Oklahoma can accomplish this session (and to be fair, Bice did say she favors point-of-production sales).

So, I think that's all I got on this. When I thought about writing this, I didn't really expect to get so impassioned about it. I certainly don't mean to hate on Sen. Bice -- not for a second. I feel she's a very nice person and indeed a fan of craft beer, and she does have an incredibly tough job as the focal point of so many competing interests. I'm not suggesting in any way she's intending to pull a fast one on anybody, and I can admit it's easy for me to over-analyze what she was saying.

It's just that in the lead-up to the Craft Beer Summit, I was so filled with optimism, that I think I let my guard down. I let myself sort of drift away from the forces that I know are in play here. I even talked myself into thinking that big money may not totally ruin this for us. And then I was reminded about all that stuff in Bice's answers to those questions.

But I do know that running away from the process -- however daunting it seems -- won't accomplish anything, and I do know that fighting for the state's brewers and for craft beer in general is a worthy cause. So, fight on, craft beer fan.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah but you do make a good point that she seems to be losing sight of what her constitutes want. And just saying the bill is so convoluted I can't explain it is pretty frightening.