Alcohol sales: another round

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Colorado Springs Rep. Larry Liston wants to clear up the laws regulating the sale of beer.

Liston "unveiled" his beer bill Thursday in Glendale, in front of the only supermarket in the state allowed to sell full-strength beer. The legislation was introduced Monday, and you can read it right here.

For a state that seems to pride itself soooooo much on its rebuffing government intervention, it's always struck me as odd, even hypocritical, to have such convoluted restrictions on beer sales. Convenience and grocery stores can only sell beer with a low-alcohol content, while restaurants and liquor stores can sell the good stuff, but not the weak stuff.

It seems more like the kind of governing that would happen in, say, New York, where the grocery stores fought a recent battle to sell wine and lost.

According to Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, there have been efforts for years to pass legislation such as Liston's, only to have the bills die in committee.

The issue is a contentious one, and not as simple as it might at first seem, he says, because it pits one set of business owners against another set. "And when you begin pitting business interests against one another, that's when it gets contentious, because people are afraid that they are going to lose their job."

He says that he hasn't made a decision about whether or not he will be supporting Liston's bill. "My first two years in the House, I was lobbied on beer bills more than anything. And I got beat up on beer bills more than anything."

"I make no commitment on beer bills before they get to me," he says.

He says that support for beer law reform doesn't break down along party line. In fact, for a conservative free-marketeer, it raises interesting questions.

"Is this a free-market issue? And is it to a point where too many artificial externalities have been inserted into the free market?" he asks. "And for whatever reason it is a market that has been created, so one of the arguments is that you have the mom-and-pop liquor store right next to the supermarket. If the supermarket can sell their products, who is going to the mom-and-pop liquor store anymore? Will this drive them out of business?

"And then on the other side, you say that this is a free market, let the free market handle itself. Well, you've relied on this system for however long we've had it. They have based their business model on the current system."

Is it fair to change the rules on businesses that have complied by those rules for years?

"I understand the arguments on both sides of the issue," he says. "It's just, where you come down on it."

Sean Duffy, a PR rep for the Liston camp, says that this year the bill has a good chance, for a couple reasons: People are more attentive to the question of jobs. Grocery stores say that they lost business when liquor stores won Sunday hours, and the unions representing grocery store workers, including the Food and Commercial Workers and the AFL-CIO, have thrown their support behind the bill. A connection of labor and business that he calls "a game-changer."

Another reason is that people are finally focusing on just "how bizarre and archaic the liquor laws are, how restaurants can't sell Guinness or Corona Light," says Duffy. "It became a broader question for people."

"I don't see it as a game-changer. The issue is still the same. The legislation kills jobs, ruins businesses and puts alcohol in the hands of minors. I don't think that that would be something that I would be proud to support," Jeanne McEvoy, president of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, who represents the liquor-store side.

She says that by more than doubling the amount of places that sells malt liquor, the odds are going to go up that kids will get their hands on it. Plus, liquor stores, where the full-strength beer is currently sold, minors aren't allowed to go with a parent or guardian. And the bill lowers the age of people who can handle beer to 18.

Though, in the end, this comes down to two business interests pitted against one another, a point that Waller articulated. To just overturn the system now would be an unwarranted blow to small business, McEvoy says. But she isn't worried. "They have tried it for five years in a row, and failed, and they won't win this year, either."

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