Most Oklahoma dry counties voted in favor of State Question 792
Most of Oklahoma's remaining dry counties voted in favor of the alcohol modernization measure State Question 792. But, unless the state's 18 remaining dry counties hold elections to go wet in the next two years, they could get even drier.
While liquor stores are legal in Oklahoma's dry counties, bars and restaurants are only allowed to serve 3.2 beer.
Keith Burt, director of the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission, said the agency expects beer distributors to stop selling 3.2 beer in the state altogether when SQ 792 goes into effect.
“Those 18 counties have a chance to decide from now up until two years from now if they will go wet,” Burt said. “If they don't, there won't be low point beer anymore at that time.”
Oklahoma is set to go to full-strength beer in grocery and convenience stores in October 2018 as part of SQ 792, which voters approved by 65 percent. Companion legislation sets out a method for dry counties to hold elections allowing liquor-by-the drink sales.
Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, who crafted much of the alcohol reform legislation, said giving dry counties enough time to approve liquor by the drink was one of the reasons most of the new alcohol laws won't take effect until October 2018.
“We knew it was a significant amount of change and we needed to give everyone time to make changes,” Bice said.
SQ 792 won a majority of votes in all but three of Oklahoma's 18 remaining dry counties. Voters in two previously dry counties, Latimer and Okfuskee, both voted to go wet in Tuesday's election.
The ABLE Commission has so far only received a few inquiries from dry counties about SQ 792, but that could change now that the measure has passed, Burt said.
Companion legislation to SQ 792 allows county commissioners to call for special elections to approve liquor by the drink after a signature petition from voters. However, Oklahoma counties have already had the option since 1984 to vote on liquor by the drink.
“Now that they won't have low-point beer, they have something else to think about,” Burt said. “Do they want to be completely dry without single-strength beer in the future? I'm sure it's something the communities will decide for themselves."
In the Oklahoma Panhandle, 54 percent or 562 voters in dry Cimarron County supported SQ 792 while 463 opposed the measure. The state's western most county, Cimarron has a population of about 2,335, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Russell Hicks, who owns the Angel Cafe in Boise City, said he wouldn't consider serving full-strength beer or mixed drinks even if Cimarron County ever voted to go wet.
“This is a small community and if I tried to sell alcohol in my restaurant, it would shut me down,” Hicks said. “I would lose my church crowd and it doesn't bother me anyway not to have it.”
The lone bar in Boise City is the VFW Club, which only serves 3.2-beer. Calls to the establishment went unanswered.
Cimarron County Commissioner Danny Bass said there are no restaurants or bars where he lives in Felt, an unincorporated community of about 100 people near the New Mexico border.
“I don't think it will make much of a difference one way or the other because we just don't have a lot of establishments here,” Bass said.
Most of Oklahoma's remaining dry counties are in rural parts of western and southeastern Oklahoma.
In the dry county of Hughes in southeastern Oklahoma, County Commissioner Gary Phillips said he doesn't like the idea of approving liquor by the drink.
Methamphetamine use is already an issue in Hughes County, he said, as well as alcohol abuse.
“Some people would probably disagree with me, but we've already got liquor stores and as far as the bill passing, it means more alcohol out there,” Phillips said. “I'm not really for it because it's creating more problems.”