The Thirsty Beagle: LOCAL founder leaves group

Monday, April 11, 2016

LOCAL founder leaves group

Last week was fun. I wrote up a blog post on Thursday that I'm pretty sure has gotten me blacklisted from all the state's good liquor stores.

Good thing I know how to homebrew and make my own wine. Seriously though, the blog generated a lot of reaction, both in the form of support and criticism. I'll get to that in a minute.

The discussion about the post also led to a revelation: the founder of League of Oklahomans for Change in Alcohol Laws, Kevin Hall, is no longer a member of the group.

Hall helped found LOCAL in the summer of 2014 to help advocate for updates to Oklahoma's alcohol laws.

Recently, Hall took a job in the craft beer industry in Oklahoma, and felt it necessary to step away from his role in leading LOCAL.

He shared this statement on my Facebook page:

"I love LOCAL. It is near and dear to my heart. I helped start it because I saw what led to change in other states. In Alabama or North Carolina or Texas, it was consumer led groups that pushed for change that helped to shape laws that consumers wanted. As a consumer group, it should be led by consumers and LOCAL should be able to speak the consumer's voice openly and honestly. I am no longer just a consumer. I took a job in the craft beer industry to help it grow in another way. I was holding LOCAL back, in all honesty. It's now time for LOCAL to speak again with its authentic consumer voice, which is what it was intended to be all along. I'll give them my two cents, but they should advocate for what the consumer wants."

So where does LOCAL go from here? I spoke to one of the group's leaders last week, and he said they are working on setting up a new leadership structure, and that they expect to make an announcement in the near future. I will share that information when I hear it.

Blog reaction

So, about that blog post. I think it struck a nerve on both sides -- those for Senate Joint Resolution 68 and those against it. People said they appreciated that I was delving into items a little deeper than they had heard before.

Several liquor store owners let me know they did not appreciate the post, and felt it was an attack. Like I said to one, I didn't sit down to write that post with the intention to go after any particular liquor store owner. In fact, I think people need to cut the liquor store owners some slack. Some of them are particularly impassioned about SJR 68 because they see it as an attack on their business and families.

I'm not saying I agree with that view 100 percent. But I am saying that I understand that is the way some of them feel, and I think that explains why they are so openly emotional about the issue.

One of the liquor store owners who contacted me was Bryan Kerr, president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma. He said he wanted to address the points I had raised in the post, and sent me a statement, which I'll share here verbatim:

Regarding the concerns you expressed in your article about the inconsistencies in our messaging, I can see how you reached your conclusions. However, they were not entirely fair to me and I believe context will provide some illumination as to why. You said, “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.” Then you go on to quote me from that post. When we spoke on February 24th about our petition, I was referring specifically to “big beer” distribution. I apologize for not making that clear at the time. We left the language about “big beer” distribution out of our petition because we were unsure which, if either, of the “big beer” guys was the good guy so we punted on that issue. We did, and do, care about Oklahoma breweries and how they are allowed to distribute and included that in our petition. I also explained to you the problems that SJR68 created with the wholesale distribution of spirits and wine… allowing just two companies to take control of up to 90% of the market by changing language in the Oklahoma constitution. In our petition, we left the language in the constitution that ensures competition at the wholesale tier since we think that ensures the best price and selection for the Oklahoma consumer. Again, I apologize if you feel I was speaking from both sides of my face but, the RLAO supports keeping spirits and wine distribution as it is. While we agree I could have given a better explanation, I respectfully disagree that my statements could be considered irrational or inconsistent.

As for Senator Bice’s claim that she “WANTED liquor store owners to be able to own more than one license but RLAO demanded (she) not allow it because they didn't want to have specks or total wine come into OK.” She is simply doing what good politicians do best; claiming half the truth is the whole and facing the heat for a bad bill written to add to the profit margins of corporations and chain stores who wield an unfortunate amount of influence at our state capitol. As for the meat of her statement, she’s correct. We did not want to see corporate ownership of spirits licenses and we did not want to allow for a single person to own multiple licenses but that is not inconsistent with our message of local ownership, accountability and sensible reform or even contradictory to limiting the number of licenses grocery stores can obtain. Even if we were allowed to own multiple/unlimited licenses, that still would not allow us to fairly compete in a market that is already dominated by corporate and chain stores who have a presence on nearly every corner, massive buying power and nearly unlimited advertising budgets. These stores have been built up over the last 50+ years; years that we have been restricted to just one license. Besides, if SJR68 passes, most liquor store owners aren’t going to find any value in having a single license much less trying to obtain multiple licenses for a market that is about to be cut in half. So, in my mind, this offer was a ruse; something the senators could come back and use at a later time to say, “See, we tried but they wouldn’t take our help” knowing full well what would happen if we accepted their “generous” offer. For the record, what I actually said to Senator Bice was something like, “Most of our members have no desire to own more than one license. Why not simply loosen the restrictions on what retail package store owners can do now so that we can become our own “Spec’s” or “Total Wine” but the stores will be owned by an Oklahoman?” Allow us to run that model in our stores so that the consumer can have what they want without ceding the entire market to out-of-state corporations who can’t be held accountable and add very little to Oklahoma’s economy. What we got in SJR68 was the hardly explicable “gift” of being able to sell up to 20% of non-alcoholic items in our stores. They claim that they put such a limitation on liquor stores so that we couldn’t become grocery stores that sell liquor but, so what if we did? We’d still have to play by the rules and regulations of a liquor store like limited hours and days of sale, age of employees and proper licensing of premises. And why aren’t grocery and convenience stores held to any such standard? Under SJR68, a convenience store could consist of a single stick of beef jerky and 10,000 square feet of wine.  Does that sound like a bill that is trying not to put small local guy out of business? 

I apologize if I was unclear or inconsistent, that was never my intent. I’ve tried to be as transparent and open about my own personal beliefs and those of the RLAO as possible. I negotiated in good faith with the senators, I met with the suits at Walmart, I sat down with the folks representing convenience stores, I had many meals with Oklahoma wholesalers and beer distributors, spent lots of phone time with Oklahoma brewers, met with Oklahoma wineries and worked countless hours devising a proposal that gave Oklahomans the convenience they desired without sacrificing local businesses and public safety in the bargain. I know some people will never believe me or trust what I say but I really am interested in sensible reform to our alcohol laws. Unfortunately, SJR68 does not meet that definition.

So now what?

It's become pretty clear to me at this point that what we really need is a deeper understanding of what SJR 68 is really all about. As it looks right now, that's probably what we're going to end up voting on -- assuming it passes the House and doesn't get challenged in court -- so shouldn't we drill down into the language a bit more? I'd rather form my own opinions on this stuff than let anyone with an interest on either side give me their interpretation. 

Particularly, I'd like to look at the distribution issue, and also at what exactly will be contained in the language of Senate Bill 383.

That will be a very important piece of legislation. When SJR 68 says the legislature shall establish certain things, those things most likely will be contained in 383. That's where we should see language on what days and hours alcohol can be sold, and also on the important issue of on-premise sales for breweries, among other topics. There's a chance we may even see the amended bill as early as this week.

So stay tuned to the blog over the next few days.

Pints and Pins

-Your Monday pint nights at the McNellie's pubs: Bavik Pilsner in OKC; Bridgeport Stumptown Candy IPA at Norman; Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale at Tulsa; and Dead Armadillo Morning Bender at Tulsa-South.

-Roughtail is hosting a brewery yoga session on April 16.

-The COOP brewery yoga class that had been scheduled for April 9 is now set for April 23.

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