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Hearing on bill to expand liquor sales draws crowd

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 7, 2013, at 10:25 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at 7:23 p.m.

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This story was reported with the help of the Public Insight Network, a partnership between readers and journalists. To join, go to Kansas.com/publicinsight.

A hearing room in Topeka was packed to overflowing on Thursday for testimony on a House bill that would expand liquor sales to grocery stores, convenience stores and large retailers.

Speakers from among the 200 people who were crammed into the room recited poll figures about Kansans’ opinions, projected job losses, boasted of economic gains, listed DUI statistics and raced through piles of testimony in hopes of swaying a majority of House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee members to their point of view. The committee plans to vote on the bill either Friday or next week.

In Wichita, consumers and liquor store owners were voicing their own opinions in response to an Eagle questionnaire through the Public Insight Network. They cited competing priorities: convenience, safety, a desire for a free market, a desire to protect small businesses.

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.

Similar proposals to expand the sale of alcohol have failed in the Kansas Legislature in recent years without even reaching a vote.

Uncork Kansas, a coalition of convenience stores, grocery stores and chambers of commerce that is pushing the bill, said it has offered to remove hard liquor from the legislation. That would allow consumers to buy wine and beer at their grocery or convenience stores, and would allow liquor stores to keep their monopoly on hard liquor, according to the coalition. The bill, HB 2206, also would expand the offerings of liquor stores to include mixers, snacks, cups and ice.

Additional provisions would provide a buy-out period for liquor stores that wish to get out of the business and would allow liquor-store owners to own multiple stores, which is not allowed under current Kansas laws.

Those who favor the proposal 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, they say.

Opponents said the law would drive small liquor stores out of business and send money from the sales of beer and wine out of the state to locations where corporations like Wal-Mart and QuikTrip are headquartered.

Convenience cited

Consumers who shared their opinions with The Eagle and favored the legislation cited convenience as the top reason. They want a chance to buy a bottle of wine for dinner at the same store where they purchase food for their dinner.

Many of those who want the bill to pass have lived in or visited other states where liquor is sold at grocery stores, and they say Kansas’ liquor laws are antiquated.

“A Walgreens in Seattle even had a small wine section,” said Michael Kline of Wichita, “And guess what? There was no anarchy in the streets.”

Kline said he is tired of Kansas lagging behind in cultural and progressive matters.

“My friends and colleagues from other states have a good chuckle when they read about our driving-the-car-while-looking-in-the-rearview-mirror attitude,” he said.

Concern about damage to small liquor stores is overblown, said those who back the bill. Many said they still would do business with liquor stores for specialty beers and wines.

Jim Lepping of Andover moved from Michigan, where alcohol was available in grocery stores. He said he would buy expensive wines and harder liquor in liquor stores and would buy other wines and beer in grocery stores.

Lepping, 59, grew up in Livonia, Mich., 20 miles west of Detroit.

“Within a five-mile radius, we had 10 mom-and-pop stores that have been in business for years. I grew up that way my whole life. They’ve survived all that time,” he said.

Dana Knott of Hesston said she should be able to choose where she purchases adult beverages without the government dictating her choices.

The convenience of buying beverages at grocery stores with kids in a cart beats having to make another stop at a liquor store, she said.

“Have you ever tried to get a 30-pound child out of a car seat so you can run in and buy beer for a ballgame?” she said. “It’s not worth the effort.”

The state currently is mandating a monopoly that picks winners and losers in the marketplace, she said.

“It simply doesn’t make sense to allow only one type of retailer to offer a legal product just because ‘we’ve always done it that way,’ ” Knott said.

Small business issue

But opponents of the bill said the current liquor laws are adequate. Convenience is a weak reason to support a change in the law, they said. They see that as laziness, considering that plenty of liquor stores are available. Safety and controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages are more important issues, they said.

Opponents said they don’t want their children exposed to liquor while mom and dad are shopping for groceries. They also fear that teen workers in the larger stores would slip six-packs out the back door to their underage friends. They predict a rise in alcoholism and DUIs among teens.

Rachel Robinson of Perry has a 14-year-old daughter. She worries that her daughter’s older friends may get a job at a large store.

“I don’t want her walking into Wal-Mart and walking out with a bottle of alcohol,” Robinson said. “I think that is going to be very accessible if this passes.”

Robinson sells alcohol to stores from a Kansas distributer, and she worries about losing the small liquor stores she serves, which would affect her business.

Protecting small businesses appeared to be the main reason people oppose the proposed legislation. Susan Lehr, manager at Simon Liquor in Park City, said the store employs five part-time workers who are earning a second income for their families at the store.

She worries that the big stores will drop their prices on beer to run the small businesses off.

“This is not a fair practice since we are trying to keep our jobs and our families taken care of. How would they like it if the shoe was on the other foot?” Lehr said.

Convenience stores and supermarkets have enough specialized goods to sell, she said.

“We do not tread on their toes, so please do not tread on ours. We are trying to make a living, too,” Lehr said.

Katie Vornauf owns F&K Liquor in Wichita with her husband, Forrest, and she used to work in the grocery business.

“If we don’t stop all this, Wal-Mart and Dillons will get in the real estate market and we will have to buy our houses from them,” she said. “You may laugh at that now, but 20 years ago, everyone laughed when Wal-Mart started selling groceries.”

She and her husband used their retirement savings and took out a loan to open their liquor store three and a half years ago, she said.

“We have worked hard and our business is doing well,” she said. “Basically, all the money we make stays local. If this law passes, I truly believe that the value of our business would drop in half overnight. Whether or not we could even stay in business is totally questionable.”

Flora Bishop of Wichita also opposes the bill, fearing it would harm small businesses and create problems for underage clerks in grocery stores.

“The only positive for me,” she said, “would be that with the huge inventory of liquor, the grocery stores would probably not rearrange their stores so often.”

The rural view

In Topeka, Jessica Lucas of Uncork Kansas hauled up a mailbox full of letters she says come from people who want expanded alcohol sales in retail stores.

Lucas said rural grocery stores need expanded alcohol sales to help them stay open and continue offering all of their products.

“The only roadblock has been this government regulation that protects liquor stores while doing nothing to support the needs of our small grocers who are trying to survive in this tough economy,” she said.

The politically powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce also supports the change, noting that QuikTrip and Hy-Vee say they may not expand in Kansas until liquor laws are changed.

But opponents reiterated that the bill is a threat to small businesses and a step toward making it easier for kids to get alcohol.

“The people in our state do not want this changed,” said Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby.

He said Derby would go from having five liquor stores to 16 if the bill becomes law.

“How does this change our community?” he asked.

Howell said recovering alcoholics will face increased temptation and kids will be desensitized.

“There will be social consequences,” he said.

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

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