Head of alcohol commission ‘bothered’ by lobbyist booze deal

The chairwoman of a legislative commission reviewing Indiana’s antiquated alcohol laws said Tuesday that she was troubled by the actions of two powerful lobbying groups that recently announced a deal which they claim will lead to the elimination of a retail Sunday alcohol sales ban.

The Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers and the Indiana Retail Council said Friday that they resolved longstanding differences that previously led state lawmakers to give up on efforts to overturn the Prohibition-era Sunday carryout sales ban.

Liquor store owners represented by the beverage association agreed to drop their opposition to Sunday sales, which they previously argued would allow grocery stores to siphon away business on a major shopping day. In return, retailers will oppose a proposal that would allow convenience and grocery stores to sell cold beer — a right primarily enjoyed by liquor stores.

But Bev Gard, who leads the Alcohol Code Revisions Commission, says the groups are “really jumping the gun” at a time when her commission is still doing work at the Legislature's request. What's more, she noted the agreement would cut out convenience stores that are seeking the ability to sell cold — and not just warm — beer.

“The way the issue was framed, it sounds like these two associations have come to a compromise, so that's going to be the new policy for the state,” said Gard, a former Republican state Senator, who said she was “bothered” by the announcement.

Any actual change in law will require legislation signed by the governor.  But Indiana’s package liquor stores, which have donated generously to lawmakers’ campaign funds, have enjoyed outsized influence for decades.

“Obviously they've had their way for a long time,” said Gard, who characterized the lobbying influence of as “significant.”

The beverage retailers association did not respond to a request for comment on Gard’s remarks.

The commission Gard oversees was created this year by the Legislature after debate over who can sell cold beer blew up into a major legislative fight.

It touched off when Jay Ricker, owner of Ricker’s convenience stores, found a legal loophole allowing him to sell cold beer, so long as he obtained a restaurant permit and sold prepared food.

The ensuing debate pitted populists who argued for free markets against entrenched business interests, who say alcohol is a controlled substance that needs to be tightly regulated and overseen by a trusted industry. The commission was tasked with sorting through the arguments, as well the state's entire alcohol code, in order to make recommendations to lawmakers before session starts in January.

On Tuesday, commission members voted to recommend that the ban on Sunday retail alcohol sales be repealed. But they held off on making a recommendation over whether convenience and grocery stores should be allowed to sell cold beer.

Ricker noted that many retailers had been on his side — until now.  He also characterized the lobbying groups’ deal as “a corrupt bargain.”

“That's because you have two sides that flipped their positions so that they each got something they wanted,” said Ricker. “But they each look very hypocritical.”

But not everyone is opposed, including state Sen. Ron Alting, who leads the Indiana Senate committee which oversees alcohol policy.

The Lafayette Republican called it “good, good, good.”

“It hasn't been the fault of the General Assembly that you don't have Sunday sales,” said Alting, who has received more contributions from liquor store interests than any other lawmaker in recent years. “What you need to do is blame both the package stores and big boxes. They had never come to an agreement.”

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