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Beer battle brewing for 2016 ballot

With the 2014 election rapidly receding into the mists of history, it’s not too soon to start thinking about 2016 ballot issues.

The supermarkets already are. They’re likely to make one of their periodic pushes to change Colorado law so that they can all sell full-strength beer, wine and — perhaps, as opponents suggest — any kind of liquor.

Under current statutes only one store in a supermarket chain can sell all types of alcohol. The others are limited to selling 3.2 beer.

Colorado Consumers for Choice sounds like an anti-personhood group, but is in fact the vehicle for the pending initiative. It’s headed by Chris Howes, lobbyist for the Colorado Retail Council and other interests.

The current system is “antiquated, unfair and inconvenient for our customers,” he said this week. Three-two beer is “an anachronism.”

Many states, especially in the West, make it much more convenient for beer and wine customers, he noted.

The grocers have already begun their campaign with a Web site that urges you to sign their petition and a Facebook page that, as of Tuesday morning, had 18,094 “likes.”

Says the petition: “Since 1933, we have invented soft-serve ice cream, rock-n-roll, space travel, the Internet and the cellphone, but you still can’t buy real beer or wine in a Colorado grocery store…. It’s past time to modernize the state’s liquor code.”

They’re hoping the impact of social media will help them succeed where previous efforts failed.

Howes and the supermarkets are right, of course; the liquor laws are ridiculous. But changing them won’t be easy. The package stores are an effective trade group. They have beaten back all previous efforts to liberalize the laws, which date back to the end of Prohibition, more than 80 years ago.

Wally Stealey, now retired, lobbied many years for the liquor stores. In 1982 he helped them defeat a previous initiative that would have allowed wine sales in supermarkets. His campaign suggested that 18-year-old grocery sackers would be taking nips from bottles of cabernet sauvignon hidden under the checkout counters, asking the customers whether they want “plaster or papic?” and running over innocent schoolchildren when driving home.

It was nonsense, but it worked.

It’s also possible that some dewy-eyed freshman lawmaker will introduce a bill this coming session to do the same thing. But such a bill has no chance. That’s because every lawmaker has several liquor store owners in their districts, and they carry more clout that supermarket managers, who aren’t owners and tend not to lobby.

As for the wine and beer consumer, he has no lobbyists at all.

We don’t know exactly what will be in the initiative; Howes maintains there is not even draft language yet. “When people understand the wackiness of the antiquated laws, they’ll be on our side,” he predicted.

It will take more than that, because lawmakers and voters alike are instinctively against big businesses like supermarkets ganging up on small, independently-owned liquor stores. The groceries are going to have to give as well as take. For instance, current law not only prohibits groceries from selling strong beer, wine and booze, it also prohibits liquor stores from selling any kind of food except what goes into drinks. such as limes, onion, olives, cherries, mixes and the like. But not beer nuts, because they don’t go in the beer.

Liquor stores don’t want to sell food anyway, you say? Perhaps not. But if so, why is the prohibition written into law? A successful initiative is going to have to allow the liquor stores to expand their product lines to the same extent that it lets the supermarkets expand theirs.

For instance, one observer suggested that the liquor stores might start by offering “Tailgate Party Packs” and eventually expand to other food products.

Jeanne McEvoy of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, the liquor stores’ trade group, is convinced the groceries ultimately want to sell all liquors, because there’s more profit in the hard stuff than in beer or wine.

But it’s unlikely the groceries will start by trying to grab everything at once.

Howes would love the liquor stores to come to the table to work out a compromise, but “for the last six or seven years they’ve had no interest in negotiating.”

McEvoy confirmed her group’s stubbornness. “They say there’s got to be a compromise,” she said. “Well, there doesn’t. Where is that written?”

She dismissed the idea that the voters’ legalization of recreational marijuana means they’d be more liberal about liquor laws too. The marijuana initiative, she noted, had no organized opposition. The supermarkets’ initiative would have strong opposition.

Another hazard to whatever initiative the supermarkets come up with: The requirement that a ballot measure have just a single subject. That will be the liquor stores’ first line of attack, as it’s much cheaper than waging an ad campaign. If they can convince the state supreme court that the initiative has more than one subject, they can get it off the ballot.

That depends entirely on what the high court thinks of the issue. If the justices like it, they’ll let it go forward; if they don’t, they’ll find more than one subject. Or they’ll stall so long before rendering the decision that the proponents won’t have time to gather signatures. The process is entirely subjective, and it’s wrong.

If the supermarkets do come up with a proposal that makes the ballot and is passed, that should just be the start of the campaign against Colorado’s silly liquor laws. Next to go should be the prohibition against owning more than one liquor store, which requires expansion-minded owners to set up complex and bogus corporate structures to avoid prosecution.

After that, there’s the requirement that all alcohol be sold to retailers through wholesalers, which can add an unnecessary middleman. If wholesalers are useful, they don’t need to be established in law.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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