The Thirsty Beagle: Alcohol reform rhetoric continues to heat up

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Alcohol reform rhetoric continues to heat up

So Wednesday was an interesting day.

I managed to get lost in at least three 75-comment-Facebook-post black holes discussing alcohol reform, and let me tell you, it put me in the mood to throw around some inflammatory rhetoric. It also left me feeling annoyed in general about how this whole alcohol law reform thing is shaking out at the moment. Pretty much, I'm liable to really just start calling things like I see 'em in this blog post.

First, let me set my opinion aside for a minute. There was the news Wednesday that SJR 68 passed the House Rules Committee on a 6-3 vote. That means the measure now moves on for consideration by the full House. If it's approved there, it will likely make its way onto the November election ballot.

As we move closer to that becoming a reality, we've established some fairly clear divisions here, and those division are really showing up on social media, where the back-and-forth Facebook comments are running wild. You've got most everyone who supports SJR 68 on one side, and a vocal coalition of the state's liquor stores, led by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, on the other.

Both sides are well entrenched at this point.

On the SJR 68 side, let's be real: This measure is primarily about big business. I'm not saying that to be controversial. I've stated for more than a year now -- even back to when I was blogging at The Oklahoman -- that if we did get alcohol law reform, it would be driven by whoever had the most money. Call me cynical if you want. At that time, I thought it would be driven by Anheuser-Busch and the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma. I hadn't anticipated the role Walmart would play, but they're arguably the most influential player involved at the moment, at least so far as SJR 68 is concerned.

At the same time, SJR 68 is about consumer convenience, too, and it appears it will deliver some of the basic things consumers have always griped about in Oklahoma. Cold beer and wine in liquor stores and full-strength beer and wine in grocery stores, to name two.

The measure, at this point, has been embraced by the craft beer community. It may not be perfect, and several advocates of the measure have admitted as much. But often legislation is not perfect and must reflect compromise. What SJR 68 does do is open the door -- through its companion legislation, Senate Bill 383 -- for what the craft beer community really wants: legitimate on-premise tap rooms at our state's breweries.

As far as the RLAO side is concerned, I've explained a couple times what I don't like about what the RLAO is asking for. Some of it I'll rehash now: I don't like how under the RLAO plan, the three grocery stores closest to my house would not be allowed to sell wine because of the half-mile rule. I don't like how they say that grocery store chains would be able to own up to four wine licenses, when only the first license is guaranteed, and the next three are subject to the chain finding liquor store owners who want to sell their wine license to the chain. (What if nobody wants to sell their license? Only one Walmart store in all of Oklahoma would be allowed to sell wine?)

I don't like how one of the RLAO's main arguments is that SJR 68 would throw the state's distribution system out of kilter, and the reason I don't like that is because when RLAO introduced its petition, RLAO President Bryan Kerr told me they weren't concerned with distribution. From my Feb. 24 blog post:

"I spoke at length on Tuesday night with Bryan Kerr, owner of Moore Liquor and leader of the RLAO, and he said they felt like they wanted to leave those issues up to the Legislature and the state's distribution companies to figure out."

Except apparently that's not what the RLAO feels like. I digress.

For a time, I actually didn't mind the RLAO argument that it wasn't fair to allow liquor store owners to hold only one wine license while grocery and convenience chains could own an unlimited number of wine licenses. Until Wednesday, that is, when I got lost in one of those Facebook-comment marathons I mentioned.

Much to my surprise, state Sen. Stephanie Bice jumped into the conversation. Bice, a co-author of SJR 68 and the primary author of the all-important SB 383, pointed out something that the RLAO has neglected to mention. Apparently, in negotiations over the language of SJR 68, the RLAO was strictly opposed to language that allowed liquor store owners to hold more than one liquor license.

"I WANTED liquor store owners to be able to own more than one license," Bice wrote in one comment. "But RLAO demanded I not allow it because they didn't want to have specks or total wine come into OK."

Seriously?! You can't have it both ways! You can't argue that it's not fair you can only have one wine license when you previously shot down the opportunity to own multiple liquor licenses. At least that's how I feel about it.

For all the things that are good about the RLAO petition -- and there's a lot to like for craft beer in their language -- and for any possible meritorious arguments they can make against SJR 68, it's come to the point for me where I don't feel like I can take them seriously anymore.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I feel like you can't just say whatever you want from day to day with no regard for what you said before. Really, it's just sad. It's sad because -- like I've written here many times -- I really do appreciate and admire the liquor store owners who I deal with. I would hate to see any of them go out of business. I feel like what they need is rational, consistent advocacy. But it appears to me that's not what they're getting.

As much as that sounds like an attack against Kerr, it genuinely is not. It's a criticism of the RLAO's approach more than anything.

When Anheuser-Busch resorted to name-calling and inflammatory tactics, I took them to task. I don't see how it's fair that I don't also point out the RLAO when I see them employing similar tactics.

Truth is, none of the petitions or measures presented for alcohol reform is perfect. They all have flaws and red flags and things that look out for one side over the other.

My opinion: What they're all selling is important, but sometimes how you sell it is important, too.


  1. Hey... Few things... Great post. I run a liquor store and I'm not super afraid of the bill, but would like to see a few more concessions for liquor store owners. Also, the RLAO has a strange ally in this fight in the form of Evangelical Xtian organizations that see beer in grocery stores as an indication of increased booze proliferation. Lastly, all these bills are too sweeping. This needs to be done in smaller increments.

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