INDIANAPOLIS — Grocery stores and pharmacies have fought for nearly a decade to shed Indiana's statewide "blue law" ban on Sunday alcohol sales. Those same businesses are part of the reason why a proposal to lift the last-in-the-nation law was killed Tuesday.
The perennial bill lost its key support earlier this month during committee discussion, where lawmakers approved major change that would force grocery stores to follow the same regulations placed on liquor stores.
All beer and wine would have been kept in a designated area, and liquor stored behind the counter. Clerks would have had to be 21 or older and have mandated training, while consumers couldn't purchase hard liquor at a self-service checkout.
Grocery chains, convenience stores and pharmacies, which originally supported the bill, argued that segregating liquor would create longer checkout lines and inconvenience consumers. Liquor store owners, who have long opposed Sunday sales for fear of increased overhead costs without additional revenue, stood behind the restrictions.
"It was a stretch just to get it to this point," Republican bill sponsor Rep. Tom Dermody said Tuesday, the same day the bill was scheduled to receive a House vote. "I think people were uncomfortable continuing to move the bill forward and we clearly did not have the votes."
This session is the first time such legislation has made it to the House floor; similar measures in recent years never even received a committee vote.
Indiana is one of a dozen states, most in the South and Midwest, that still embrace Prohibition-era blue laws, which restrict Sunday business activities such as car and alcohol sales. Though many of these states still limit some alcohol sales on Sundays — Minnesota, for instance, bans liquor and wine sales but allows sales of beer with up to 3.2 percent alcohol by volume — Indiana's laws are the most restrictive.
As one of the last sweeping examples such laws that once extended across the Bible Belt, the debate over whether to repeal it has evolved from one rooted in religious objections to bolstering businesses' bottom lines.
Grant Monahan, president of the Indiana Retail Council, which for years has lobbied to lift the ban, said the "onerous amendment" was the first step toward the bill's demise, and lobbyists spent the last several days finding votes to kill the bill.
"It was unfortunate but it was the right thing to do," Monahan said.
Kroger spokesman John Elliott said while the original measure, which simply lifted the Sunday ban, was fair to consumers, the added regulations turned it into "a package liquor store wish-list" that did far more damage to customers than the greatest possible gain from Sunday sales.
Meanwhile, liquor store lobbyists stood behind the new proposal.
Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers CEO Patrick Tamm said it was the first legislation in recent years to take a comprehensive look at where and how alcohol is being sold. He noted liquor stores, which the association represents, already comply with strict public policy regulations and the changes would have leveled the playing field.
Because the bill failed to clear the House, legislative rules prevent it from being brought back up later in the session, House Speaker Brian Bosma said.
The Indianapolis Republican added: "The bill's right where I think it ought to be right now."
Though the measure may be dead for this session, Monahan said he plans to continue to push for legislation to lift the ban. Consumers have indicated that's what they want, according to a recent petition that received more than 50,000 signatures.
Richard Benedict of the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, who moved from Colorado in 2005, said it's time to change an "antiquated" law.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to buy all of your groceries together," he said.
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