Cold beer battle brewing after GOP leaders offer final bills

A battle is brewing at the Indiana Statehouse as lawmakers worked Wednesday to keep legislation alive that addresses a legal loophole used by Ricker’s convenience stores to sell cold beer.

Both chambers faced a procedural deadline to make changes to bills they want to keep alive. What emerged from House and Senate floor sessions were two different approaches, with one chamber — the House — calling for a study on overhauling the state’s complicated alcohol laws.

The final details will be worked out in the days ahead as the legislative session draws to a close in roughly two weeks.

Under Indiana law, convenience stores can sell warm beer.  But GOP leaders, who were clearly irked by Ricker’s, say the intent of the law is to only allow for liquor stores to sell cold beer.

Ricker’s bypassed that by building restaurants at two locations and obtaining restaurant permits that allow for carryout sales of cold beer.

“They did everything they were asked to do under the law,” said Rep. Tony Cook, a Cicero Republican who has one of the stores in his district. “They had all kinds of support from the local folks there in my district. They put together a very classy store.”

The House proposal would allow for stores such as Ricker’s to continue selling so long as their permit is not revoked or suspended. But it would prevent others from jumping on the bandwagon for a period of two years. That pause is intended to give lawmakers time to study the best way to do a major rewrite of the law.

The Senate version would allow continued sales until their alcohol permits expire in one year. After that, stores such as Ricker’s could renew only if 60 percent of their alcohol sales were from on-site consumption — a high bar to meet.

Neither chamber set out with a goal to rework Indiana’s booze laws, which are rooted in Prohibition. But their hand was forced by Ricker’s, which also has the permits to start selling at a handful of other locations.

Now the Republican majority, which frequently touts a free-market ideology, is wading in on matters that will determine who can and can’t operate in the state’s cold beer market.

Indiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission has placed a hold on the renewal of 367 restaurant alcohol licenses. Chairman David Cook said during a Tuesday meeting that the pause was prompted by the Legislature. Restaurants that are on hold will be granted a 90-day permit extension while legislation is pending.

Package liquor stores, which have donated generously to lawmakers and have considerable influence, are pushing hard to maintain their current hold on the market. During a committee hearing last week they lashed out. Patrick Tamm, CEO of Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, said Ricker’s “clearly is flouting the law.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb says his administration “followed the law” when the ATC issued the permits. There are also a handful of other similar stores around the state that have quietly sold cold beer to go for years.

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