Lawmakers craft a deal on beer sales at grocery stores

In this photo taken April 6, 2016, Brett Jones, a sales representative with High Country Beverage, stocks 3.2-percent alcohol content beer at a Safeway store in Fort Collins. (Valerie Mosley/The Coloradoan via AP)

After its last-minute passage on the final day of Colorado’s legislative session, a compromise plan to put full-strength beer in Colorado grocery stores and drugstores by 2037 is on its way to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk.

The complicated bill, Senate Bill 197, sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Reps. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, sets up a 20-year phase-out of Colorado’s post-prohibition era limits on grocery store alcohol sales. Grocers currently can have only one store in the state selling beer stronger than 3.2 percent beer, a limit that rules out most brands unless they make “near-beer” versions.

The measure passed its final vote Wednesday in the House. If signed by the governor, the law will allow grocery stores to buy more licenses from neighboring liquor stores should those stores choose to sell them. With licenses in hand, those supermarkets could also add wine and liquor products to their shelves.

By 2037, any Colorado grocery store or drugstore applying for and receiving a liquor license from the state could then sell beer, wine or liquor. The measure makes no provision for gas stations, which would not be able to sell the full strength alcohol products.

Hickenlooper said he isn’t ready to sign off on the bill that would slowly unwind the state’s alcohol retail sales limits. The governor said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that he wants to evaluate the economic impacts of changing the beer laws before he takes any further steps.

The governor has said before that he likes the status quo, but will seriously consider the bi-partisan legislation now headed for his desk.

Colorado’s largest grocery store chains, King Soopers and Safeway, have said the beer bill doesn’t go far enough and the corporations have said they may sue. Another large liquor store in Wheat Ridge, Applejack Wine and Spirits, also voiced opposition to the measure.

Some are questioning whether the compromise bill went far enough to do what it was intended to accomplish — stave off an initiative at the ballot box in November where voters will be able to decide the issue themselves. Your Choice Colorado, a campaign committee working on behalf of the ballot measure to allow full strength beer and wine — but not liquor — in grocery stores, issued a statement chastising the bill after its passage.

“The session has ended and the Legislature has failed Coloradans yet again,” the statement said. “They had a chance to make real changes to benefit Colorado consumers and give them the choices they want and deserve: real beer AND wine in grocery stores. But instead of fixing an antiquated law, the Legislature failed Colorado consumers, jamming together a last-minute bill that masquerades as a compromise.

“The reality: this bill only protects a handful of big liquor stores and doesn’t guarantee Coloradans a better way to buy both beer and wine; it only promises them full-strength beer in 2019.”

Your Choice Colorado, vowing it will either legally challenge the “sloppy legislation,” or will continue as planned with its 2016 ballot initiative, added that it believes voters are ready for a change, evidenced in the collection of “60,000 petition signatures in a little over two weeks.”

Keep Colorado Local, a group mostly made up of smaller liquor stores from around the state formed to combat the ballot measure, has not yet issued a statement on the success of the compromise legislation.

A legal challenge could in fact help opponents, providing them with a  “slowing in process,” one source close to the situation said. A lawsuit could buy some time for opponents like Your Choice Colorado to further stave off what would amount to an overnight flipping of the switch to place full strength beer and wine on the shelves of big box stores should the ballot measure pass.

One Representative summed up his opinion of what many under the gold dome perceived to be a hastily cobbled together compromise, albeit a heavily — and effectively — lobbied one. It’s “about as bad a bill as I’m gonna vote for this year, but I’m gonna vote for it,” said Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction.

— Jared Wright with compilation from the AP and other sources

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