The Thirsty Beagle: Answering the 8.99% question

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Answering the 8.99% question

When Oklahomans for Modern Laws filed language for its alcohol reform initiative petition last week, one item in particular stood out for craft beer enthusiasts:

An ABV cap of 8.99 percent for beer sold in grocery and convenience stores.

The obvious question: Why did they settle on that seemingly arbitrary number?

I put that question to Brian Howe, director and spokesman for Oklahomans for Modern Laws, and the answer is actually thoroughly enlightening, if not moderately depressing for craft beer fans.

First, allow me to deviate and provide a little background on Oklahomans for Modern Laws. We know from my blog post last week that there are several groups advocating publicly for alcohol reform in Oklahoma.

There's Tap Oklahoma, which is organized by Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom and backed by the likes of Walmart and Oklahoma's larger grocery and convenience store chains. There's Cold Beer Now OK, backed by Anheuser Busch. And then there's Oklahomans for Modern Laws -- the oldest of the three groups, but perhaps the least understood.

We know that Oklahomans for Modern Laws has been around for several years. In 2012, the group submitted an initiative petition to have wine sales approved for some Oklahoma grocery stores. That question survived a court challenge, but due to the legal drag-down, OFML withdrew the measure, fearful they wouldn't have enough time to gain the required 100,000-plus signatures.

Now they're back and making another stab at getting wine -- and regular-strength beer -- in grocery stores through their new initiative petition.

That's all fine, but who is backing them? Well, turns out, they're really only backed by themselves. The group consists of Howe and main investor and financial backer Sean Campbell, an Oklahoman who is independently wealthy through the oil and gas industry.

As Howe explained to me, Campbell moved from Oklahoma to Colorado for a time, where he got involved in the craft beer scene there. Campbell eventually returned to Oklahoma, but really longed to also bring New Belgium's Fat Tire back to Oklahoma with him.

As we know, New Belgium has gone on the record saying Oklahoma's lack of liquor store refrigeration, among other issues, keeps them away.

Campbell had the motivation, and he had the money, and as Howe explained, "he just wanted change." So Oklahomans for Modern Laws was formed, and to this day remains essentially a two-mean team. (It's worth noting their initiative petition, which would be State Question 783 if it were to make the November election ballot, was authored by former state Sen. Glenn Coffee, who submitted it to the Secretary of State of behalf of OFML.)

We've got all that squared away, so let's circle back to the main question: Why 8.99 percent?

As Howe explained to me, OFML would actually prefer no cap at all on ABV for wine and beer in grocery stores.

They decided on the 8.99 ABV cap number because that, Howe said, is the number being discussed in negotiations at the state Capitol as part of Senate Bill 383.

Last legislative session, as it became clear that SB 383 would become more than just the refrigeration bill, all the interested parties -- state legislators, Walmart, Budweiser, the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma and others -- began negotiations on Oklahoma alcohol reform. These same negotiations are ongoing now.

Legislators wanted to write in a cap of 6 percent ABV on beer in grocery and convenience stores, Howe said, but OFML and Anheuser Busch balked. The parties agreed to bump up the number to 8.99. But why have a cap in the first place?

Howe said the reason for that is essentially preemptive damage control. Those attempting to write the legislative referendum are trying to anticipate potential negative feedback from voters who feel uncapped beer would contribute to public safety issues or other problems.

In other words, the 8.99 cap is in place as a sort of public relations move, an effort to appease anti-alcohol voters.

It's all about polling, folks -- trying to come up with something likely to be passed by voters.

So, to reiterate: OFML put the 8.99 cap into its initiative petition because that's what will likely end up on the state question if it comes through the legislative process at the Capitol. In fact, Howe said SB 383, as it stands right now, looks an awful lot like OFML's petition.

For people who didn't really think OFML's petition did a lot for the state's craft brewers, that might not make you feel very good about SB 383.

Don't get totally depressed just yet, though. Our state's craft brewers are trying to get a seat at the negotiation table. They've hired a respected lobbyist, and I do believe there is still time to gain some wins for craft beer.

But maybe you shouldn't count on one of those wins being the ability to get Prairie Bomb! at the grocery store.

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