Okla. Grocery Wine Proposal Draws Opposition

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A movement to allow Oklahomans to purchase their favorite wine in grocery stores is being opposed by retail liquor merchants and anti-addiction groups that believe making wine more accessible will lead to higher rates of alcohol abuse in the state.

Oklahomans for Modern Laws has filed an initiative petition that seeks a statewide vote on what would be one of the biggest changes to Oklahoma liquor laws since Prohibition was repealed in 1959 and liquor-by-the-drink was allowed in bars and nightclubs on a county-option basis in 1984. The group must collect the signatures of 155,216 registered voters in order to have the issue placed on the November ballot.

The state Constitution restricts the sale of wine almost exclusively to licensed retail package liquor stores. The state's more than 60 wineries are permitted to sell their own vintages in their tasting rooms and can also distribute their wines directly to liquor stores, bypassing liquor wholesalers.

Among other things, Initiative Petition 396 would create a new wine license to permit the retail sale of wine for off-premises consumption by grocery stores, superstores, supermarkets and warehouse clubs that have at least 25,000 square feet of floor space. Convenience stores would be excluded.

Wine sales by grocery stores would be restricted to 15 Oklahoma counties whose populations are more than 50,000 and would have to be approved in advance in countywide votes. The hours and days wine could be sold in grocery stores would be the same as retail liquor outlets, meaning sales would be barred on Sundays and certain holidays.

The proposal would make common-sense changes to state liquor laws and make buying a bottle of wine more convenient for average Oklahomans, said attorney Lee Slater, who represents Oklahomans for Modern Laws. More than 30 other states allow wine to be sold in grocery stores.

"It would let your basic soccer mom purchase a bottle of wine while she's going through the grocery store with her 6-year-old soccer player, which she can't do now," Slater said. "It's a convenience factor and to a certain extent an economic development tool. Having reasonable liquor laws is attractive when you're trying to sell the state."

But the proposal has come under fire from liquor retailers and two organizations that believe increasing the availability of alcohol will increase the opportunity for abuse.

"We're not advocating a return to prohibition," said Jim Priest, attorney for Fighting Addiction Through Education and the Oklahoma Prevention Policy Alliance. But alcohol is already the most abused substance in the state and increasing the number of retail outlets will contribute to more abuse and underage drinking, Priest said.

The proposal is also opposed by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, which fears many local package liquor stores could be run out of business.

"It is inherently unfair to locally owned package stores located close to those grocery stores who take advantage of this new law," the organization's website states. "Competition will suffer and the consumer will be faced with fewer choices at higher prices."

The organization's president, J.P. Richard, owner of Cache Road Liquor in Lawton, did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the proposals.

Supporters claim making wine available in grocery stores will help the state's wineries, giving them more wine outlets and opportunities to expand. But Andrew Snyder, president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Winemakers Association, said the group is neutral on the issue.

"We rely on liquor stores to sell our product," Snyder said.

The anti-addiction groups and Oklahoma City liquor store owner Yousef Javadzadeh have filed protests with the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments on the initiative petition on Thursday.

Each of the protests allege proposed changes to the Constitution the proposal would require involve multiple subjects in violation of the single-subject rule that applies to constitutional amendments. Priest said the proposal is unwieldy and involves "a buffet of so many things."

"We believe it misleads voters," said attorney Kenneth Short, who represents Javadzadeh. Short said proposed changes to zoning, taxation and other constitutional provisions is a form of unconstitutional logrolling that makes the proposal invalid.

The protests also allege the proposal violates the equal protection clause of the state and U.S. constitutions because it would treat similar entities in different and unfair ways.

Counties with populations of less than 50,000 and stores smaller than 25,000 square feet do not qualify for the grocery store wine licenses.

"The group proposing the ballot measure recognizes that no rational basis exists for these distinctions other than the strategic consideration that making such distinctions raises the possibility of passage of the proposed initiative," protest papers filed by Priest state.

In addition, many constitutional regulations that apply to retail package liquor outlets, including prohibitions against issuing retail liquor licenses to corporations and individuals who have been residents of the state for less than 10 years, do not apply to the proposed grocery store wine licenses.

The initiative petition would "place restrictions upon one class of licensees (package stores) but not on another class of similarly situated licensees (grocery stores)," according to protest papers filed on behalf of Javadzadeh.

The protests claim the proposal would also create an unfunded mandate on the state agency responsible for enforcing state liquor laws, the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission. The agency's general counsel, John Maisch, said passage of the measure would likely cause its duties and costs to rise.

"With additional retail outlets will come increased responsibilities," Maisch said.