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Uncork Kansas coalition will seek bill to broaden liquor sales

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, at 8:37 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 17, 2013, at 9 a.m.

Efforts to change the liquor laws in Kansas so that shoppers can buy a bottle of red wine to go with the meat they just purchased in the same store have failed in recent years, but supporters plan to try again.

Uncork Kansas, a coalition of convenience stores, grocery stores, and chambers of commerce, hope to have a bill introduced “as early in the legislative session as possible,” said Jody Hanson, Uncork Kansas public relations representative.

The coalition considers it another move to upgrade the state’s antiquated liquor laws, while liquor store owners see it as a threat to their businesses.

Similar proposals have failed in the Kansas Legislature in recent years, failing even to reach a vote in either house. No one is quite sure what to expect from a legislature filled with new lawmakers who were elected after the massive court-ordered redistricting of the state.

Kansas law now allows only retail liquor stores to sell wine, liquor and full-strength beer. Grocery and convenience stores can sell 3.2 beer and wine coolers.

Liquor laws vary widely from state to state. Colorado and Oklahoma, like Kansas, don’t allow the sale of full-strength alcohol and beer in grocery stores or convenience stores, while Missouri and Nebraska do.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which announced its support of the effort earlier this week, sees it as a free-market issue. But liquor store owners say they will lose business to big retail chains and may be forced to close.

The effort also has the support of the Topeka Chamber of Commerce. The Wichita Metro Chamber plans to remain neutral on the issue based on a poll of its members. Jason Watkins, director of government relations for the Wichita chamber, said its membership includes businesses on both sides of the issue. They decided the matter wasn’t worth expending the chamber’s political capital on, and splitting the chamber.

Kent Eckles, vice president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said that under existing law the state “is picking winners and losers by saying who can and can’t sell liquor. It is protecting an illegal monopoly.”

A Dillons representative agreed, saying that consumers win when retailers compete.

“Modernizing Kansas’ outdated liquor laws expands consumer choice, supports free enterprise, and encourages competition,” Sheila Lowrie, Dillon Stores spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail to the Eagle. “These points are all basic tenets of our economic system.”

While that free-market philosophy should appeal to a conservative Legislature, Eckles said, he also acknowledged that there are free-market conservatives who also are social conservatives, and would oppose expanding liquor sales. Fiscal conservatives also like to stand up for small businesses.

David Schoket, owner of Delano Retail Liquor in west Wichita, is a small business owner who thinks he would be hurt by the legislation.

“I have a very small store, and it would impact me quite greatly. It might put me out of business,” he said.

Hanson said the bill would allow liquor stores to sell things they currently aren’t allowed to sell, such as cups, chips and ice.

“I think everybody would benefit from a level playing field and free enterprise,” she said.

But Schoket said his store doesn’t have room to sell those extra items.

Hanson said changing the laws would lead to economic growth in the state. More grocery and convenience stores would be built in Kansas, meaning more jobs.

“Companies won’t build in Kansas until these laws are changed,” she said.

But Spencer Duncan, executive director of the opposition group, Keep Kansans in Business, said the legislation would hurt existing stores, especially those in rural Kansas.

“We know that passing it opens no new businesses in the state of Kansas. However, we know passing it closes businesses in the state of Kansas,” he said.

Duncan said he was disappointed that the Kansas Chamber of Commerce supports the new legislation because it contradicts one of the chamber’s major goals, which is expanding the tax base. Money would leave the state for places where corporations like Wal-Mart and QuikTrip are headquartered, he said.

“Dollars to liquor stores stay in the local communities. A dollar must stay in an economy for that economy to prosper,” he said. “It makes no sense to let that dollar leave.”

Eckles, of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which supported similar legislation to change the laws last year, said the Uncork Kansas coalition has offered other concessions to liquor stores as well as offering to let them sell items current laws don’t allow. Last year, it offered to freeze the number of liquor store licenses issued in Kansas so that mom-and-pop stores could sell theirs to larger stores if they wanted, he said.

“We don’t want to put anybody out of business,” Eckles said. “We want everybody to prosper.”

Schoket said large grocery stores and convenience stores wouldn’t have the ability to control alcohol purchases, or identify problem drinkers, the way small liquor stores that are well connected to their neighborhoods can. Lack of trained workers could lead to more dangerous consequences of alcohol use, such as drunk driving, he said.

But Hanson said Uncork Kansas has been gaining support in the past year. More than 27,000 people have signed a petition supporting its effort to change the liquor laws, and 2,500 have sent messages of support to legislators through its website, she said.

“Kansas consumers are ready for it,” Hanson said.

A strong majority of legislators who responded to The Eagle’s voter guide questionnaire over the summer were opposed to changing the laws. A few supported the change, and others said they needed to learn more about the issue.

Eckles predicts an uphill battle for the legislation in Topeka. “There’s a lot of free-market people in the Legislature, but it takes several years for big ideas like this to pass,” he said.

Duncan, of Keep Kansans in Business, said he doesn’t know what to expect.

“When you have so many new legislators, it’s a double-sided coin,” Duncan said. “Who the heck knows what they’re going to do? It’s a little scary. On the other side, we have a chance to educate new people.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to those new legislators,” Duncan said. “Many of them have said they have issues with the legislation, whatever that means.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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