Politics & Government

Oklahoma vote looms large in this year’s Uncork Kansas battle

A customer buys beer at R & J Discount Liquor in Wichita in January.
A customer buys beer at R & J Discount Liquor in Wichita in January. File photo

The Sooner State is playing a big role in this year’s version of the nearly annual debate over whether strong beer and wine should be sold in grocery and convenience stores in Kansas.

Currently, if you visit a grocery or convenience store in Kansas or Oklahoma, you can buy only beer that has a lower alcoholic content, 3.2 percent by weight. You have to go to a liquor store for full-strength beer.

But Oklahomans approved State Question 792 in November, which means they may be able to buy strong beer at grocery and convenience stores starting in October 2018.

At a legislative hearing this week, QuikTrip’s Mike Thornbrugh called Oklahoma a “lynchpin” of the market for 3.2 percent beer.

“When it eliminates 3.2 beer, the rest of the country is ultimately going to follow suit. If we’re not going to do this this year, when? Are we going to wait?” asked Thornbrugh.

QuikTrip is among retailers that back HB 2282 in the Kansas Legislature. The bill would, among other changes, create a wine and beer retailer’s license for grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer and wine in 2018.

R.E. Duncan of the Kansas Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association said there was no reason to think brewers would stop making 3.2 percent beer after the vote in Oklahoma.

“I’m sure they’ll provide proud Kansans with the products they demand,” Duncan said.

Opponents say the legislation would cost jobs at hundreds of liquor stores – mainly small, family-owned businesses – as they lose business to large out-of-state companies.

“This is about large national businesses trying to change the playing field to suit them,” said Jeff Breault, co-owner of R & J Discount Liquor near Douglas and Hillside in Wichita. “This legislation is a job-killer, not a job-creator.”

‘Antiquated liquor laws’

Supporters of the bill framed it as a matter of giving customers more choices.

The Kansas bill is “exactly like what was passed in Oklahoma,” said Jessica Lucas of Uncork Kansas, a group formed to seek broader alcohol sales.

“States that have restrictive laws are frustrating consumers as they see the changes in other states and recognize those freedoms,” Lucas said at a committee hearing in the Kansas House.

Some wholesalers pushed for a bill in last year’s session that would have allowed grocery and convenience stores to apply to the state to sell full-strength beer if tax revenue from 3.2 percent beer declined enough. The bill later stalled.

Dave Dillon, a retired chairman and CEO of Dillons parent company Kroger, said selling strong beer and wine would help grocery stores in an industry with thin margins.

“If we don’t meet those customer needs as they are changing, we end up out of business,” Dillon said.

Dick Stoffer, HyVee’s director of state government relations, said the company is growing in seven of the eight states where it operates stores.

“It’s Kansas where we’re not growing, and that’s solely because of the antiquated liquor laws,” Stoffer said. “We want to invest more of our resources here. But our growth potential has been stifled by this legislative body.”

“Greed is what keeps the system as it is,” Stoffer said.

Lenexa resident Karen Washburn said the state is losing money when Kansans hop the Missouri border to get wine with grocery shopping at stores like Trader Joe’s and Costco.

“Some of the ladies in our community have ended up making it a weekly occasion to get together and caravan across the state line,” she said.

‘Generated by lobbyists’

Liquor store owners say the current law keeps products with a higher alcohol content in a more regulated and controlled environment than grocery or convenience store shelves.

Ross Schimmels of Standard Beverage Corp., a Lenexa wholesale distributor, said the industry doesn’t think the state’s liquor laws are antiquated.

“We think this is a good balance between convenience and responsibility,” he said.

Schimmels and other opponents blamed companies like Wal-Mart, Kroger and QuikTrip for repeated efforts to change the law.

“There is a lot of noise under this dome and it’s being generated by lobbyists for large corporations who want this business,” Schimmels said.

Breault said big-box stores can use their size to potentially put liquor stores in competition out of business. A Dillons store lies directly across Douglas from the liquor store he owns with his wife.

“I’m not asking you to protect my store,” he said. “I’m asking you not to destabilize the market.”

Breault said current law allows the state’s liquor stores to exist on a level playing field.

“Everyone knows the rules when they enter the field. I knew the rules 18 years ago when I bought my stores,” Breault said. “I haven’t come up here every year pounding the table asking you to change these laws to suit me.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar