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May 20, 2013

Legislature had little taste for alcohol bills

Cold beer in gas stations and Sunday sales turned away.

Indianapolis — When it comes to alcohol, the 2013 legislative session may be marked more by what it didn’t do to boost booze sales than what it did.

Repeating recent history, the General Assembly turned away efforts to expand Sunday alcohol sales and allow gas stations and convenience stores to sell cold beer – the latter of which has prompted a lawsuit.

Legislators did decide to let a small group of well-established wineries and breweries get into the business of distilling spirits, and it cleared the way for an auction of some cheap liquor licenses for lakefront development in a resort community on Lake Michigan. But they crafted both bills to have narrow impact.

In turning down another bill that would have given Indiana breweries the same right as Indiana wineries to sell their products at farmers’ markets, the legislative gatekeepers signaled their distaste for lifting Indiana’s historically strict limits on alcohol.

“If we did that, the next thing you’d know, we’d have farmers markets turning into liquor stores,” said House Public Policy Chairman Bill Davis, a Republican from Portland who’s played a key role in killing alcohol expansion bills.

Davis is a teetotaler who’s repeatedly killed a bill that would allow grocery and liquor stores to sell carry-out alcohol on Sundays. But he said decisions aren’t based on his personal views, but on what’s best for the public safety.

“We all understand that not everyone uses alcohol the way it’s intended,” Davis said. “By far and away, it’s the most abused drug in our state.”

“My real concern,” he added, “is about availability: How available is alcohol to people who abuse it or have it and shouldn’t have it?”

It’s a similar view to the one held by his counterpart, Senate Public Policy Chairman Ron Alting of Lafayette, who’s blocked measures to let gas stations and grocery stores sell cold beer, citing concerns that it would increase drunk driving.

Supporters of keeping Indiana’s strict alcohol laws in place include the powerful package liquor lobby, whose members fear increased competition for sales. But they also include religious groups and social organization, including Mental Health America of Indiana, who fear loosening laws would lead to more underage drinking and more overconsumption by adults.

Backers of cold beer sales and Sunday alcohol sales argue that the public is tired of what they see as Indiana’s antiquated alcohol laws, some of the strictest in the nation.

After five years of failing to make the case in the General Assembly, the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association decided to take its case to court.

Last week, the association, along with several storeowners, filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the state law that bans gas stations, groceries, and pharmacies from selling cold beer. Under current law, those retailers can sell unrefrigerated beer but only package liquor stores can sell it cold.

Association director Scot Imus said the cold beer ban is both discriminatory and nonsensical.

“When you change the temperature, it doesn’t change the alcohol content,” Imus said. “Nobody is saying it’s not appropriate for the state to regulate alcohol. But the regulation needs to be rational.”

Two of the alcohol bills that did make it through the General Assembly are narrow in focus: One allows Indiana-based wineries and breweries that have been in business at least three years, operating with federal alcohol-sales permits, to distill up to 10,000 gallons of hard liquor a year and to offer tastings of those craft spirits at their venues, like they do their wine and beer.

Davis was willing to let the bill proceed through his committee and onto a full vote.

“It doesn’t explode alcohol sales,” Davis said. “It doesn’t make them into bootleggers.”

Another bill, that came out of the Senate, allows for the auction of inexpensive liquor licenses to restaurant and bar owners who locate in a lakefront development area along Lake Michigan near Whiting. The law mirrors similar measures that have granted liquor licenses, at a reduced cost, in riverfront development areas and historic preservation districts.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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