Colorado state Sen. Chris Holbert said early Monday that he hoped his soon-to-be-introduced effort in the state Legislature to regulate full-strength beer sales at grocery and convenience stores would not turn into “another beer war.”
By the end of the day, however, it appeared that Holbert’s dreams will go unfulfilled.
At an afternoon meeting of 40 stakeholders representing constituencies from grocers to liquor stores to alcohol distributors, the Senate majority leader and his co-sponsor on the bill, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver, ran into numerous objections about limitations he’s proposed on the amount of beer the stores could sell, the age of clerks selling it and the ability of grocers to deliver beer to customers.
And participants left the gathering questioning whether any bill could get through the Legislature to be signed into law this year or whether it would be left as carnage on a battlefield that has become increasingly hostile between competing interest groups, as competing efforts have been.
“Part of my mindset with this bill was not to have people in the lobby throwing poo at each other,” Holbert said, referencing efforts in 2017 to clear up portions of a landmark 2016 bill allowing grocers and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer, wine and spirits at more than one location within the state. “That was ugly. It was ugly in the lobby. It was ugly in the chamber.”
And while the new bill from the Parker Republican may not be quite as ugly as that, Monday’s meeting showed it will be anything but easy.
Under provisions of the 2016 bill, known simply as Senate Bill 197, all grocers and convenience stores that now can sell only low-strength beer will be able to sell full-strength beer come Jan. 1. Without any bills passing this year to dictate how that will happen, the conversion with happen with no regulations whatsoever, Holbert has emphasized.
As such, he hopes to add some limitations on sales — such as requiring that anyone selling full-strength beer must be at least 21 years old, limiting beer sales at grocers and convenience stores to no more than 20 percent of overall sales and allowing only retail liquor stores rather than grocers to have employees deliver beer to customers.
He also hopes in the measure to ban new grocery and convenience stores that sell beer from opening up within 500 feet of schools, to limit single-container sales of beer to vessels that are 26 ounces or smaller, and to allow Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to have as many as four stores selling the full range of alcohol — as many as liquor-store owners can operate but less than the 20 grocers can have.
The limitations in particular proved a sticking point Monday, with liquor stores arguing that they need so some sort of protections in preparation for the massive loss of business that will occur when national grocery chains begin offering many of the same beers that they now rely on to be profitable.
Grocers and convenience stores shot back, meanwhile, that the purpose of SB 197 was to allow a more even playing field for all alcohol sellers, not to offer protectionist provisions for liquor stores.
Holbert and Guzman’s proposal to limit total sales to no more than 20 percent of gross revenue at grocers and convenience stores — and to limit large grocery stores to no more than one side of a refrigerated retail aisle dedicated to beer sales — set off the most fireworks.
Representatives from Safeway and King Soopers said they’ve been preparing for a year and a half to change their stores in order to accommodate greater beer sales and felt this last-minute regulation threw wrenches into their plans.
Convenience-store operators, meanwhile, noted that a clause in the bill limiting total beer sales to 20 percent exempted tobacco, gas and lottery tickets from the amount that could be included in their non-beer sales — three items that now can make up 75 percent of their revenues.
“You’re looking at a windfall. We’re looking at significant losses,” said Jeanne McEvoy, president/CEO of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which represents the majority of the roughly 1,600 liquor stores in the state. “Without some restrictions, how do we present devastation to businesses that are selling those products?”
“We’ve played by the rules. And we’ve played by the rules that were set up in 2016,” responded Kris Staaf, Safeway regional director of public affairs and government relations, who opposed provisions of that bill that require grocers to buy out two nearby liquor-store licenses before selling wine and spirits (though not before the 2019 conversion to full-strength beer. “We compromised on not having wine in our stores.”
Holbert and Guzman said they will take the feedback they received and look to see if there are ways to amend the bill to make it more tolerable to everyone at the table.