TOPEKA — Convenience store owners are urging lawmakers to allow them to sell full-strength beer, contending it would level the playing field.
But liquor store owners fear changing the laws would cause their businesses to close.
"They are attempting to stab me in the back and take 60 percent of my business," said Wichita liquor store owner John Davis.
For 35 years, Davis said he has operated Davis Liquor. The enterprise has become a family affair, with his wife and two children each owning their own stores.
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He estimates that 60 percent of his sales come from beer. Allowing convenience and grocery stores to sell full-strength beer would pull away customers. If those stores want those customers, let them follow all the regulations he has to follow, Davis said.
Convenience and grocery stores can sell only beer that is no more than 3.2 percent alcohol. House Bill 2537 would remove that restriction.
The House Federal and State Affairs Committee heard testimony at a standing-room-only hearing Thursday. The hearing continues Monday.
Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said expanding the sale of beer would open up the market and encourage free enterprise.
"Beer is legal," he told the committee. "The question then is not so much of a moral one as a question of how the market and distribution should be handled."
The slightly weaker beer that grocery stores now sell was created in the 1930s as a way to circumvent Prohibition. Prohibition ended in Kansas in 1948, but 3.2 beer remained the only option for grocers.
Tom Palace, executive director for the Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said there is little difference between the alcohol content of 3.2 beer and full-strength beer, which can be up to 4 percent alcohol.
But convenience store owners have to contend with a perception problem, he said.
"The consumer feels we sell an inferior product."
Palace called the current law archaic and said the change would not be the only reason for liquor stores to close.
"There are various reasons why people go out of business,'' he said. "It is not just increased competition.''
Monte Pelz, who owns Pelz Retail Liquor in Wichita, didn't agree with that assessment. He thought about 1,000 jobs would be lost from liquor stores closing around the state if the law changed.
And convenience stores and grocery stores wouldn't add jobs, they would just switch out the product, he said after the hearing.
Pelz and others worried that expanding sales of full-strength beer is the first step toward allowing wine and other alcohol to be sold outside liquor stores.
Bob Alderson, speaking on behalf of Casey's General Stores Inc., said that isn't the case. The convenience stores want the same product, but full-strength. They want a basic range of beers and probably would not sell all the specialty beers a liquor store would carry.
"We don't have display cases to put all of the beers in," he said.