Alcohol Regulation Roundup: Fat Tuesday Edition

Happy Fat Tuesday, everyone! While you enjoy that frosty alcoholic beverage, enjoy this latest round of alcohol-related regulatory actions throughout the nation:

Colorado: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is feeling the heat after his office issues an “executive fiat” overturning a law that prevents restaurants and bars from selling low alcohol beer. The bill, which was passed last year, forced the state to abide by the rule already on the books that states only grocery and convenience stores may sell low-alcohol beer. As a result, many light and low-alcohol Irish Stouts were prohibited from being served in bars. The bill was an attempt by grocery and convenience stores to draw attention to the need to do away with the distinction between low and higher alcohol beers and allow all stores to sell full strength beer. Hickenlooper, a former microbrewer, said that his office was involved in the surprise rules issued by the Division of Liquor Enforcement that overturns the ban on low-alcohol beer in restaurants.

The grocers and convenience stores said they were stunned by the abrupt repeal of rules that had taken months to hammer out.

Just a few days after the governor’s move, lawmakers announced that they will hold special hearings today (March 8, 2011) to review his actions.

Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, chairman of the House Economic and Business Development Committee, and Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, chairman of the House Finance Committee, will hold a rare joint hearing of their committees today. Liston said lawmakers want to understand how the rule change occurred and for what purpose.

While Hickenlooper takes his licks, St. Patty’s day revelers will have their Irish Stouts, and the issue of full-strength beer in grocery and convenience stores is likely to return to the legislature.

Maryland: The Baltimore Sun has apparently picked a side in the Maryland debate about wine-shipping laws. In their March 7 article “The bottling up of wine,” the editorial staff makes it clear that they believe allowing direct-shipping is “pro-consumer.”

In the State House, it is said there are 1,000 ways to kill a bill but only one way to pass it. The point is that legislation, no matter how sensible, always faces an uphill climb while there are innumerable ways to weaken, misdirect or just plain bottle up a proposal.

The truth of this adage can be seen in the latest gyrations in the effort to allow Marylanders to purchase wine by direct shipment to their homes. Most states allow this practice already, and a recent report from the comptroller’s office showed how the usual objections — that it would facilitate underage drinking or hamper tax collections — were red herrings.

But never underestimate the clout of monopolist alcohol distributors and others in the industry who don’t want a bottle sold in this state on which they don’t turn a profit. So they are asking lawmakers to rewrite the wine shipping bill to state that a customer can only buy wine by direct shipment that is not already available in Maryland.

…Legislators need to refrain from their usual inclination to cut backroom deals, appease those with political clout or “go slow” with policy changes. Instead, they ought to act in the interests of their constituents and allow Maryland consumers a chance to buy directly from wineries and retailers and have it shipped to their door, as wine drinkers in the vast majority of states can already.
Here’s hoping that the some of the folks who vote on the laws had a chance to read the Bmore Sun yesterday.
New Mexico: If you want a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary with your brunch, you have to wait until noon in New Mexico. However, a bill making its way through the New Mexico legislature would allow restaurants to begin serving alcohol at 10am on Sundays. SB 301 passed 24-15 in the Senate and now goes on to the House.

North Dakota: Bismarck could see an end to “blue laws” that prevent beer sales on Sundays. Those in favor: anyone who buys or sells liquor in Bismarck. Those opposed: anybody who sells liquor in a neighboring town (because Bismarck residents just buy liquor on Sundays in other towns).

Oklahoma: Residents of the Sooner State hoping to get full-strength beer and wine in grocery stores will have to wait. A bill that would have allowed allow grocery and convenience stores to sell strong beer and wine has been tabled while a 13-member task force studies the issue. They will present their findings and proposal to the legislature next year.

Utah: The Utah Senate passed a bill that supporters say is designed to encourage people to drink alcohol while consuming food as well. SB 314, sponsored by Sen. John Valentine, would increase liquor and beer service time, increase the number of restaurant liquor licenses, and eliminate mini-kegs in Utah liquor stores. The bill adds 15 new full-liquor service licenses and 25 beer and wine licenses. The bill would also allow an unlimited amount of beer-only licenses for restaurants that only want to serve beer.