Package stores foil efforts to alter alcohol laws

Bottles of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey are displayed in a liquor store Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. Alcohol regulators ended their investigation into whether George Dickel, a subsidiary of liquor giant Diageo, violated state laws by storing whiskey in neighboring Kentucky. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Bottles of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey are displayed in a liquor store Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. Alcohol regulators ended their investigation into whether George Dickel, a subsidiary of liquor giant Diageo, violated state laws by storing whiskey in neighboring Kentucky. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The General Assembly considers nearly every year whether Indiana should lift its ban on Sunday retail alcohol sales and if it should allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell cold beer.

The answer repeatedly has been a resounding no, even though the convenience and grocery store owners argue Indiana’s law is arbitrary and discriminates against them. U.S. District Judge Richard L. Young last month ruled Indiana has the right to decide who can sell cold beer.

So why does the package liquor store lobby consistently manage to thwart efforts by the larger grocery store and convenience store lobbies to repeal the decades-old laws? Political observers say the liquor store owners have the home-court advantage over grocery, pharmacy and convenience store chains, most of which are based out of state.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, said the debate over alcohol sales is unique because it often breaks down by legislative district rather than party lines. Lawmakers don’t want to hurt local businesses, he said.

“If you think of the district where you live, how many liquor stores are in that district and how many grocery or convenience stores? And which ones are locally owned?” he told The Indianapolis Star.

David Orentlicher, a law professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Democrat state lawmaker, said the status quo is the easiest path for lawmakers as long as no one is making a compelling argument that changing the alcohol laws will grow the economy.

“If you can make a case about growing the pie, then it’s easier to satisfy everyone,” he said. “But if you are dividing up the existing pie, then it’s hard to gain a strong consensus for that change.”

Scot Imus, president of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, Imus said his group can’t focus on only one or two issues like the liquor store industry can.

People who want to change the laws say it’s a matter of convenience and that Indiana residents should be allowed to buy alcohol on the second biggest shopping day of the week.

Opponents say expanding the law will make it easier for minors to buy alcohol, create more opportunities for drunken driving and put the smaller package liquor stores out of business.

So far, the push for change has gained little support in the Indiana General Assembly. The Senate never has held a hearing on the issues during a legislative session and the House held a committee hearing on Sunday sales in 2013, but the issue never came to a vote.

Patrick Tamm, the president of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, believes package liquor stores have been so successful because they’re on the right side of good public policy.

“Really it’s a matter of how do you want alcohol sold in your community — highly regulated or highly unregulated?” Tamm asked. “This isn’t about drinking milk or water.”

But he also concedes that liquor stores being locally owned helps.

“We are oftentimes the locally owned store and the locally owned business in the community,” he said. “And our competitors are not. The Walmarts and Krogers of the world, the regional, national and international businesses, are frankly looking to put us out of business.”

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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