By Dave Bangert
The first step in dealing with this state’s alcohol laws is to admit Indiana has a problem.
Backed into a corner by a convenience store owner who figured out how to work Indiana’s byzantine laws to get cold, carry-out six-packs into two of his places, the General Assembly tied itself in knots in the past few weeks trying to figure out how to tamp down a clever way around what lawmakers claim was the “will of the legislature.”
The House Public Policy Committee recently signed off on a provision that would allow two Ricker’s Convenience Store locations to keep selling cold beer for the time being while closing the door on similar runs through a liquor law loophole the company found this year.
But the lawmakers were chasing their tails. And they knew it.
If the General Assembly could get this wound up over the sale of cold six-packs at two convenience stores — Ricker’s figured out how to fashion its Columbus and Sheridan locations with in-store, Tex-Mex dining and qualifying for a restaurant alcohol permit — what sort of loophole-breach of the legislative will would the committee face a year from now? And the next? And the next?
Venting ensued — at the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission for not seeing through the Ricker’s permit application and knocking it down; at state regulations vs. the free market; at restrictions over the temperature of a store’s stock; at disparate fees paid to sell essentially the same products in different storefronts; at just about everything but whether Vice President Mike Pence’s “Billy Graham Rule” would allow him to pick up a six-pack at the counter with a woman other than his wife.
It all wound up here:
“If anything,” said Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, “(Ricker’s has) highlighted the absurdity or our liquor laws.”
The conclusion from Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne: “There’s 100 percent agreement it’s broken.”
The problem, Lehman moaned, was that the only other 100 percent agreement was that it was “the other guy” who had to give up position in what amounted to a clash of beer, wine and liquor market shares. Lehman argued it was “true reform” or bust. That, he figured, would take two solid years to sort out a system so tangled that entrepreneurs have taken it upon themselves to unknot what they can.
The question now: Is two years enough?
History has its doubts.
Consider Sunday sales of retail alcohol. Getting rid of Indiana’s Prohibition-throwback vestige of blue laws really should be the low-hanging piece of Indiana’s weird setup.
But there is no such thing as easy when it comes to the marriage of convenience and the sense of Indiana’s carry-out alcohol regulations. Sunday sales is a frequent fight at the Statehouse, ultimately gummed up with sympathy for true liquor stores none too keen on allowing the sales of beer, wine and whiskey a seventh day — especially when that extra day is one of the biggest for weekly grocery shopping.
The idea of Sunday sales advanced out of committee in 2015. But it did only in a bill so loaded with restrictions meant to level the field by hamstringing grocery stores and big box retailers — segregation of alcohol to certain aisles and hard liquor kept behind counters, for starters — that it died as little more than a joke.
What’s going to happen when the Statehouse gets serious about blowing up a system of alcohol laws that have launched business models based on being able to sell cold beer but not cold soda — liquor stores are restricted to 10 types of goods, and soda is one of them — and vice versa for groceries and convenience stores?
The complaining that went on during the House Public Policy Committee Monday morning did more than hint that it would be nasty, weighing the heavy price of permits and regulations liquor store owners have paid over time against getting with the times. No one flinched when Lucas floated the word “absurd.” No one scoffed at Lehman’s two-year prediction, which he based on the sort of time given to sentencing reform.
The question is, if this is going to really take two years, when will Indiana start that clock?
Face it, other states have figured it out. (Spring break travel has a way of bringing that home, doesn’t it?)
Meanwhile, the General Assembly resigns itself to scolding state agencies that grant a taste of cold beer sales, no matter how closely a place such as Ricker’s followed the letter of the law to get it done. Lawmakers are left trying to explain their intent — in this case that “a restaurant within a grocery store, convenience store, specialty or gourmet food store, or drug store should not be given the privilege of selling cold beer or liquor for carryout” — while admitting they’re barely solving anything at all.
But that is the first step, admitting you have a problem. For now, drink to that.
Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to email@example.com.