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Making Sense Of The Proposed Changes To Oklahoma’s Complex Liquor Laws

Mar 18, 2016

Oklahoma’s $1.3 billion budget shortfall has dominated news coverage of the 2016 legislative session, but one of the bills the public is most interested in is a proposal to overhaul the state’s alcohol laws.

Senate Joint Resolution 68 would put a State Question on the ballot this fall allowing voters to decide to remove portions of the state constitution that put limits on Oklahoma’s alcohol laws. That would open the door to further legislation that could do everything from allowing liquor, wine, and full-strength beer to be sold in convenience and grocery stores to changing the state’s unique distribution model.

State Sen. Stephanie Bice is one of the co-authors of SJR 68. The first-term northwest Oklahoma City Republican has led the charge on what proponents call alcohol modernization during her two sessions, and said during debate this particular piece of legislation came after months of hard work.

“Oklahomans want to see change. They are tired of living in prohibition with laws that were enacted in 1959,” Bice said. “Is change uncertain? Absolutely. Is it difficult? You bet. But I guarantee you that the constituents that are contacting each and every one of us are tired of living under the same regulations that we’ve been living under.”

That involves compromise between public safety advocates, and existing businesses, said The Journal Record’s managing editor and regular KGOU contributor Adam Brooks.

“Liquor stores aren't sure that they want big box retailers to be able to undersell them, even if they get something,” Brooks said. “And that's kind of what happened. Everybody had to get a little bit of something to give up a little bit of something.”

Oklahoma Restaurant Association President and CEO Jim Hopper told The Journal Record’s Molly Fleming he’s worried all of this will cause prices for alcohol to go up:

“It will create less competition and selection, and will be harder to get a lot of the nicer wines we enjoy in Oklahoma.”

He said many people see SJR 68 as a positive change in the state’s liquor system because, if approved by voters, consumers will be able to buy high-point cold beer and cold wine at grocery stores and convenience stores. But the ORA is concerned that the change will mean higher prices on wine and liquor. He called the new law a danger to consumers.

There are also issues with the current distribution system for wine and liquor. Under current law, manufacturers have to sell to a broker, who’s then legally required to sell to all wholesalers in Oklahoma.

“We're the only state who does this. The new system under these proposed bills would let manufacturers choose how many wholesalers they use,” Brooks said. “That could be one, that could be two, they could do all seven if they want. They say it will be more efficient. It definitely cuts out a layer of the brokers, so that's one less layer of market.”

The other legislation, like Bice’s Senate Bill 383, would codify some of the details, such as allowing the sale of chilled full-strength beer or whether or not consumers can buy non-alcoholic mixers in liquor stores. If the constitutional amendment makes it through the legislative process, voters could determine the fate of Oklahoma’s liquor laws this November.

The Business Intelligence Report is a collaborative news project between KGOU and The Journal Record.

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