With big changes in Colorado beer sales ahead, lawmakers scramble on rules

Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:55 AM
A bill currently working its way through the Legislature in this session’s final days is an attempt at address rules that were not part of a measure passed last year to allow full-strength beer to be sold in grocery and convenient stores.

Come Jan. 1, you should be able to walk into most Colorado grocery and convenience stores to buy full-strength beer, the result of a measure adopted by the General Assembly in 2016.

But that measure failed to include rules for implementation. A bill currently working its way through the legislature in this session’s final days is an attempt at such rules.

In recent days the measure has been changed dramatically in the House – and those changes may be tough for the Senate to swallow. On Tuesday, Senate Bill 243 cleared the House on a 35-30 bipartisan vote. It now heads back to the Senate for a decision on House amendments.

The bill has been a political football tossed between big grocery and convenience stores, and small mom-and-pop liquor stores and craft brewers, since its introduction on April 16.

Colorado has limited the ability of all but a handful of grocery and convenience stores to sell anything other than 3.2 percent beer since the days of Prohibition. In 2016, lawmakers finally approved a measure that would allow all grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer beginning next year.

The 2018 bill began with a restriction that no one under the age of 21 could sell beer at the grocery or convenience stores. It also dictated how much “shelf space” a grocer could devote to beer, just how close (or far) a store that sells beer can be from a school or a liquor store, and even who could deliver beer to the store.

Not surprisingly, none of that went over well with the grocery and convenience stores. The Senate amended the bill to remove shelf space restrictions. On Friday, a House committee amended the bill to lower the age for selling to 18 and reduce the distance between stores that sell beer and schools and other liquor stores.

According to the Denver Business Journal, the House changes rankled the measure’s sponsors, Democratic Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and Republican Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland, who pledged to restore the bill to a version acceptable to the small liquor stores and craft brewers.

The measure has not been without shenanigans and lengthy debates. Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran assigned the bill to House Appropriations for its committee of reference, where public testimony could be offered. The only time that committee serves in that capacity is when it deals with the budget and supplemental budget bills that come in the early part of the session.

Duran reversed herself hours later – sources said the votes for the bill weren’t there – and sent the bill to the Public Health Care and Human Services Committee, which stripped out most of the restrictions on the big stores from the bill.

The bill then got to the Appropriations Committee, which was happier with the changes and sent it on to the House floor, where it won a preliminary voice vote approval Monday night.

Late Monday, the House tweaked the bill further with an amendment from Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, who advocated for parity between the liquor stores and the grocery stores on the issue of who can sell beer. Under his amendment, 18- to 21 year-olds could sell beer in liquor stores, as well as in grocery and convenience stores.

Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf of Colorado Springs also succeeded in an amendment that would allow third-party companies to make beer deliveries from grocery and convenience stores.

Republican Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs, who has long advocated for full-strength beer sales in grocery stores, also tried to amend the bill to allow for more liquor licenses granted to those stores, but that effort failed, largely along party lines.

The drama started once more Tuesday morning when sponsors sought permission for a third reading amendment to remove Landgraf’s amendment on third-party deliveries. The motion elicited a complaint from Esgar that her integrity had been questioned, related to what happens to the bill once it goes back to the Senate for discussion of House amendments.

House Assistant Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver said he wasn’t questioning the sponsors’ integrity, but stated that emails were sent to people in his district that indicated the amendments from the public health committee would be stripped out once the measure returned to the Senate.

Democratic Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp of Arvada, who sits on the appropriations committee, also referred to that email, which was sent by the association that represents the small liquor stores.

“The question we have is around the email (as well as) texts I received that amendments would be put on the bill to get it out of committees,” Kraft-Tharp said.

To the sponsors, Kraft-Tharp said, “Stand up and respect the integrity of those people who invested in this bill and put amendments on it, and fight for it.”

The House did grant Esgar and McKean permission to offer the amendment but tabled that vote until Tuesday evening. When the House returned for the vote, the sponsors withdrew the amendment and the bill passed.

Senate Bill 243 doesn’t set rules regarding the sale of wine, which was covered under the 2016 law. McKean told Colorado Politics that issue was resolved in part by the 2016 bill and because rules and licenses for selling wine differ substantially from those for beer.

McKean said the rules around selling beer matter because on Jan. 1, “people can be assured when they go to a liquor store, grocery or convenience store, that they can get the full-strength beer they like,” and that sales are governed by one set of rules, regardless of who sells it.