Alcohol reform is still underway at the state Capitol 

click to enlarge An employee walks past beer selection at Poncho's Liquortown.  mh
  • An employee walks past beer selection at Poncho's Liquortown. mh

The most substantial overhaul of Oklahoma’s liquor system since Prohibition was approved by state voters in November, clearing the way for grocery and convenience stores to sell wine and refrigerated full-strength beer beginning in October 2018.

Additionally, retail liquor stores can open their shops from 10 a.m. to midnight Monday-Saturday and sell a small selection of items other than alcohol, like mixers, fruits and glassware.

The measure, State Question 792, amended the Oklahoma Constitution to repeal Article 28 (Alcoholic Beverage Laws and Enforcement) and enact Article 28A as outlined in Senate Joint Resolution 68. A companion bill, Senate Bill 383, set new alcohol licensing, distribution, enforcement and other regulations. Last spring, lawmakers approved Sen. Stephanie Bice’s SB 383; however, it required voter approval of SQ 792 to become law.

While proponents preached the need for Oklahoma to modernize alcohol laws, opponents — including many liquor stores — argued the reform benefitted big box stores over liquor stores, hurting the local economy and small business. In December, the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma filed a court challenge to SQ 792, arguing the law is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

In an effort to address additional issues surrounding state alcohol laws, as well as give liquor, grocery and convenience stores time to make business changes, a two-year delay was crafted into the legislation. As several lawmakers predicted, at the conclusion of the January’s bill-filing deadline — the last day for state lawmakers to submit legislation for 2017 — there were a dozen alcohol-related bills.

“Things are really changing with the new liquor laws,” Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, said when introducing House Bill 1686 in Oklahoma House’s Appropriations and Budget Finance Subcommittee.

Wright’s bill calls for eliminating sales tax on alcohol purchases and increasing the excise tax. As State Question 792 moves to end sales of low-point beer, Wright proposes simplifying the state’s alcohol taxation structure. Despite clearing the House Committee with no dissent, HB 1686 has been met with opposition from the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma and pro-alcohol law reform industry group Modernize Oklahoma. Opponents see the proposal as a massive tax hike, effectively raising the prices of alcoholic beverages.

Bice, who crafted much of the legislation to overhaul Oklahoma’s alcohol laws in 2016, authored Senate Bill 211, which calls for a county-option vote on Sunday liquor store sales.

The proposal was originally included in the original SB 383 language but was pulled to ensure a smoother passage through the committee process.

In late February, the Senate Business, Commerce and Tourism committee approved the bill, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.

If approved by both House and the Senate and signed by the governor, SB 211 would allow county residents to petition county commissioners to call a special election to vote on whether or not to approve Sunday alcohol sales.

The petition must contain signatures of at least 15 percent of the total votes cast in the last general election for governor. If a majority of county residents approve the measure, liquor stores have the option to open for sales between the hours of noon and midnight on Sundays.

Print headline: Carry on, Oklahoma’s alcohol reform is still a work in progress at the state Capitol.

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