State lawmakers drop 3.2 beer bill

Decision pleases local liquor store owners

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— Efforts to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer hit a roadblock Wednesday, and local liquor store owners are pleased.

Colorado's House Committee on Business Affairs and Labor voted, 7-4, to postpone the measure indefinitely Wednesday at the Capitol in Denver. The measure's supporters have suggested the issue could go to voters.

Under current rules, grocery and convenience stores can't sell beer that is more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. House Bill 1192 would have converted their licenses to allow full-strength beer sales.

"I think that they did the right thing," Central Park Liquor owner Greg Stetman said about the lawmakers who shot down the bill in committee. "I think it saved jobs in this state."

Liquor store owners have said that small-business owners would lose customers, forcing job cuts, if grocery and convenience stores could sell full-strength beers. Stetman also said he would have to cut the selection at Central Park to compete with grocery and convenience stores.

Sean Duffy, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association, has argued that convenience store franchises are small businesses, too. His association is a coalition of convenience store and grocery stories.

"Consumers lost," Duffy said about Wednesday's decision. "We had an opportunity, and still may have an opportunity, to break up a monopoly that is resulting in less selection, higher prices : but the legislators heard from the liquor store monopoly, who did a very effective job of creating fear about job loss. Obviously in a tough economy, that's going to be a pretty effective argument."

Proponents gathered nearly 70,000 signatures from consumers supporting the change, he said.

Liquor store owners said they knew their fight wasn't over. Grocery and convenience stores still want to sell beer - and probably wine and spirits, too, Stetman said.

Duffy alluded to that possibility.

"We're in the very, very early stages of taking a look at what (a vote) might entail, what shape it might take," Duffy said. "We certainly have seen overwhelming consumer response. : And if you're going to the voters, it's got to be more than just getting rid of 3.2 beer. A lot of consumers we talked to said if you're talking about beer, you've got to talk about wine and maybe should talk about spirits, too."

State Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, and state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, had said they would vote against the measure, citing a desire to protect small liquor stores. Baumgardner represents House District 57, which includes Routt County.

Southside Liquors owner Ted Heid said everything began with the decision to allow liquor stores to be open Sundays. That change went into effect July 1, 2008. Grocery and convenience stores supported it because it was a bargaining chip for them to sell full-strength beer, Heid said.

Few liquor store owners wanted Sunday sales, he said.

"I think in actuality if it went back to the way it was, they could have their 3.2 beer on Sundays, and life would be good," Heid said.

He also noted there is a market for 3.2 beer: Colorado does not allow full-strength beer at state parks. The state's parks Web site confirms that rule.

"What are we going to do if all the grocery stores and convenience stores are selling full-strength beer?" Heid asked. "You won't be able to drink in state parks."

Despite his concerns, Heid praised Wednesday's decision.

"I'm real pleased with the way it turned out, and I hope it can continue to be that way," he said.

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