In the annual showdown of the liquor stores versus the grocery stores, the liquor stores won.
That would be the quick way of summarizing this past Wednesday’s decision by a powerful legislative committee chair to kill the push toward Sunday package alcohol sales in Indiana.
But both sides claim much more is at stake than the profits for special interests, and the Indiana public would seem to agree.
Over the past four years, there has been a concerted push in the Indiana General Assembly to end Indiana’s ban on Sunday alcohol sales.
Every state has its own alcohol laws, but Indiana is the last state remaining where it is impossible to go to a store and purchase alcohol on a Sunday. Last year, Connecticut became the 49th state to allow Sunday sales.
The liquor store lobby is against Sunday sales for two reasons. First, the liquor store owners don’t think the additional sales would cover the cost of staying open a seventh day. Second, they worry about losing market share to the grocery stores.
The grocery stores want Sunday sales because many families do their grocery shopping on weekends, and complain that it’s inconvenient to make alcohol purchases outside of their regular shopping trips. The grocery stores are open anyway, so it’s an opportunity to make more money.
Grant Monahan of the Indiana Retail Council, the lobbying group for the grocery stores, said he disagrees that the issue is solely a liquor stores versus grocery stores special interest battle.
“I think it’s liquor stores versus consumers,” Monahan said. “We hear from our customers every Sunday, when they do their family grocery shopping, asking ‘Why can’t we buy alcohol?’ And that’s a fair question.”
Kyle Rayl, owner of Soupley’s Liquors in Kokomo, said the issue is more complicated than that, and pointed to the fact most Indiana grocery stores can sell spirits.
In most states, Rayl noted, “liquor” (as opposed to beer and wine) can only be sold in package stores. In some of those states, the package stores aren’t allowed to be open on Sundays.
“If we add Sunday sales, all of the sudden we’re among the top 10 most liberal states in terms of alcohol laws,” Rayl said. “Alcohol is best sold in a controlled environment. The less access you have to it, the fewer problems you’re going to have with alcohol.”
Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, the head of the House Public Policy Committee, has been the roadblock for Sunday sales bills each of the past three legislative sessions.
The soft-spoken Davis says he’s “not supported alcohol bills in general,” but noted he’s allowed two alcohol bills — one allowing farms to run wineries and one establishing an “artisan distiller” permit — to get a committee vote.
After going two sessions in which he didn’t allow a hearing on the Sunday sales issue, Davis allowed testimony earlier this month.
But Wednesday, he announced there wouldn’t be any additional testimony taken on the Sunday sales bill, HB1146.
That meant no committee vote this session, and no chance of passage for the bill.
Even with the bill dead, however, Sunday sales proponents saw the mere fact Davis held a hearing to be progress.
“We decided it was time to at least have a hearing, to let people on both sides of the issue have a say,” Davis said Thursday. “This session, we’re focused on jobs and education, and putting people back to work, so we held the bill. But I’m sure it will be back again.”
Monahan confirmed the bill will return next session. There will be plenty of public interest when it does.
“Alcohol is a regulated product in this state, and it’s regulated for a good reason,” Davis said. “To focus on one issue like Sunday sales ... when we go down that path, you start to get into issues like how it can be displayed, and who can have it warm, and who can serve it cold. You get into the minutae of the issue.
“The thing to focus on is that our laws are set up to protect the public. It can’t always be about who gets to sell it. We have to look at what is good public policy, and how to protect the citizens of this state.”
Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.