GOP leaders agree to close cold beer loophole

Jeff Williams checks the stock in the beer cooler behind the counter in a Ricker's convenience store in Sheridan, Ind., Wednesday, April 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican leaders in the Indiana Statehouse have reached agreement on a measure targeting a convenience store owner who used a legal loophole to circumvent the state’s stringent law governing who can sell cold beer.

A copy of the proposed legislation obtained Thursday by The Associated Press sets a bar so high that Jay Ricker, who started selling carryout cold beer last month at two of his Ricker’s gas stations, says he will likely have to stop sales in April 2018.

The measure, which still must be voted on by the House and Senate, sets stringent alcohol sales rules for any establishment like Ricker’s that obtained a permit after November 2016. Under the legislation, at least 60 percent of their alcohol sales must be for on-site drinking in order to get a permit renewed, a threshold Ricker says will be impossible to meet.

But the measure also includes a long list of exemptions, including fraternal clubs, golf courses, marinas, hotels and resorts.

“We were targeted,” Ricker told the AP. “You’ve got all these exemptions to the rules — except us.”

Decades-old rules, closely guarded by elected officials who receive generous donations from the liquor store lobby, strictly manage who can sell “iced or cooled” beer for carryout.

It’s a right granted to package liquor stores and restaurants, but denied of gas stations and convenience stores, which can still sell warm beer and cold wine.

Ricker worked around it by installing seating and serving burritos, landing a restaurant classification — and the right to sell cold beer.

The maneuver has ignited a fierce legislative battle, with some of the state’s most powerful lawmakers scrambling to pass legislation as the session draws to a close.

Liquor stores wield considerable clout in Indiana, branding themselves as small, community-oriented businesses that are fighting back against national grocery store chains and big box retailers. They also say they are protecting what’s theirs, with store permits auctioning for as much as $500,000.

An Associated Press review found liquor store interests have spent at least $150,000 on lobbying in recent years while donating more than $750,000 to lawmakers since 2010.

While Statehouse leaders may have struck a deal, what remains to be seen is if rank-and-file lawmakers will support it. Many are ardent believers in limited regulation and free markets, and they have ridiculed the state’s cold beer rules.

“This is all about protecting the liquor store industry,” said Republican Sen. Phil Boots, of Crawfordsville. “They want their monopoly on cold beer.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma acknowledged as much Thursday. When asked if he had the votes, he replied: “Not confident.”

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