The Thirsty Beagle: Legal challenges filed against OFML initiative petition

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Legal challenges filed against OFML initiative petition

I'm beginning to get the feeling -- more so each day -- that the road to alcohol law reform in Oklahoma will be fraught with more twists than anyone expects.

The news last week was dominated by the unveiling of Senate Joint Resolution 68 and the reaction from Anheuser-Busch to SJR 68.

But you'll remember that right before that, came the announcement that Oklahomans for Modern Laws had filed an initiative petition seeking to get a state question on alcohol reform on the November election ballot.

Then, late Monday, we became acquainted with IRAP -- the Institute for Responsible Alcohol Policy. What do they have to do with this, you ask?

IRAP is one of two entities that has filed legal challenges against the OFML petition.

IRAP is relatively new group. It was founded and is headed up by John Maisch, the former general counsel for the state's ABLE Commission. Maisch, who may know as much or more about Oklahoma's alcohol laws as anyone, said he started IRAP when it became clear that alcohol law change was going to be a serious theme this legislative session.

"My goal is to be a voice that helps to foster productive dialogue among the public and community leaders," Maisch told me Monday night. "IRAP is not necessarily 'for' or 'against' modernization, but I do believe that if the state modernizes, it is important to do it in a measured, responsible way that doesn’t jeopardize public safety or make it easier for minors to drink."

Maisch said his many years with ABLE give him a unique perspective on Oklahoma's alcohol laws.

"As many people have pointed out, some of those laws are antiquated and can and should be updated," he said. "However, a great many of them are there for a reason, which is to protect public safety and public health. Some of them are also necessary to protect consumer choice, like the three-tier system, which ensures that craft breweries and distilleries actually have a way to get their product to market."

IRAP now consults with two of Oklahoma’s oldest, family-owned distributors, Jarboe Sales Co. and Central Liquor, as well as two nonresident sellers, Glazer's and Republic National Distributing Co.

"Over time, I'm anxious to continue to build alliances with others, including members of the mental health and law enforcement communities, as well as citizen-activists throughout the state," Maisch said. 

On Monday evening, when Maisch announced that IRAP had filed a legal challenge to the OFML initiative petition, his statement also included some language that -- to me -- spoke directly to SJR 68 and the idea of Anheuser-Busch distributing its own strong beer.

"IRAP has challenged this particular initiative petition because it not only allows brewers to circumvent important safeguards requiring beer to be distributed by independent, Oklahoma wholesalers, but is also prohibits our elected leaders from passing future legislation to curtail this potentially harmful practice," the statement reads.

"The public is best served when state legislators enact laws that ensure a strong, vibrant three-tier system intended to prevent large suppliers from exerting unhealthy influence over the distribution and retail tiers. When those tiers are allowed to collapse, it can threaten the independence of one or both tiers.

"Brewery-owned branches also present a possible threat to consumer choice and market access. Oklahoma law has never allowed brewers to distribute strong beer, and Oklahoma's craft brewing industry has thrived, in part, because of that prohibition. If (OFML's) petition were approved by the voters, Oklahoma would not only be in the minority of states to authorize these brewery-owned branches, but it could have a chilling effect on consumers' access to craft-brewed beer in many of the state's most popular outlets.

"IRAP looks forward to continuing to educate and inform legislators and community leaders as to the threats caused by efforts to undermine the three-tier system."

The statement said IRAP would prefer any wholesale change to the state's alcohol laws be reached through the legislative process. Maisch told me IRAP "would generally support wine in grocery stores and refrigerated, strong beer in grocery stores and package stores, as long as those laws are written responsibly and are supported by a majority of Oklahomans."

He said it was premature to endorse SJR 68, since the measure is still a work in progress, "but the version that came out of the Senate Rules Committee last week addressed a lot of concerns that I would think Oklahomans would want addressed."

All that comes on the heels of a legal challenge filed on Friday against the OFML petition by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma. The RLAO claims the petition violates the state's single-subject rule (which calls for ballot measures to cover only one subject).

For OMFL's part, spokesman Brian Howe told The Oklahoman on Monday that his group plans to fight any legal challenge.

So, who's keeping score? By my count, there are some serious heavyweights lining up on each side of SJR 68. 

In the "Openly endorsing SJR 68" column, we have the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma and LOCAL.

In the "Not necessarily openly endorsing but also not dismissing" column we have IRAP, Walmart and the Craft Brewers Association of Oklahoma.

In the "Straight up against SJR 68" column: Anheuser-Busch and RLAO.

I also have strong indications that several more groups will make their opinion known on SJR 68 in the near future, and that will include some that are opposing it.

More than one of my sources warned me that things were going to get complicated on the way to November, and it appears they were all correct in that line of thinking. The question is, just how messy will this situation get?

Even better question: Will all the varying interests throw up so many road blocks against one another that they derail the chances of anything getting done?

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