Bill proposes county-by-county vote on Sunday liquor sales
A bill that would let counties vote on Sunday sales at liquor stores and another that would raise excise taxes on beer, wine and spirits are among the flurry of alcohol related measures under consideration at the Oklahoma Legislature this year.
Senate Bill 211, authored by Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, would allow counties to vote on whether liquor stores can open between noon and midnight on Sundays, beginning in 2018.
The bill would allow county commissioners to set the elections, or residents could start petition efforts to get a measure on the ballot.
Liquor stores had initially hoped that Sunday sales would be part of an overhaul of Oklahoma's alcohol laws that Bice helped lead last year, but the language didn't make it into the final version of the bill.
Bryan Kerr, president of the Oklahoma Retail Liquor Association and owner of Moore Liquor in Moore, said Sunday sales would help package stores better compete with grocery and convenience stores once they can begin selling wine and full-strength beer in 2018.
"It would level the playing field a little for me," Kerr said. "It's just another piece of making things at least a little closer to fair if and when grocery and convenience stores begin selling wine and beer."
Bice believes SB 211 would allow county voters to make up their own minds on the issue. There are still 18 counties in Oklahoma that are considered "dry," only allowing low-point beer sales in bars and restaurants.
"There may be some counties that are still uncomfortable with the idea of a liquor store open on Sunday and this gives local control back to them to make those decisions," Bice said.
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The Sunday sales bill passed unanimously out of committee last week and next goes to the full Senate for consideration.
The Legislature is considering dozens of alcohol-related bills in the wake of the alcohol modernization measure, State Question 792, which voters passed in November. Among them are at least three proposals to allow movie theaters to sell alcohol in some form.
Another piece of legislation also authored by Bice, Senate Bill 257, would allow parents to bring their minor children under age 12 into a liquor store with them. But it remains unclear whether the bill would be heard this session.
"Most people in Oklahoma agree that it's silly that a parent can't bring their child into a package store," Kerr said.
Bice said the goal of SB 257 was to allow liquor stores to better compete with grocery and convenience stores. Under the voter-approved State Question 792 grocery and convenience stores will be able to sell wine and full-strength beer beginning October 2018, giving liquor stores competition for sales.
A bill geared at streamlining taxation on liquor and beer has drawn the ire of alcohol industry groups, which say it will lead to higher prices for consumers.
House Bill 1686, authored by Rep. Harold Wright, R-Weatherford, proposes doing away with sales tax on alcohol in favor of higher excise taxes.
Alex Weintz, executive director of the new pro-alcohol law reform industry group Modernize Oklahoma, said Wright's bill would lead to Oklahomans paying some of the highest excise taxes in the country on alcohol.
Weintz believes the bill could increase the price of a case of beer by $3 to $7 in Oklahoma.
"It would put us at a major disadvantage in Oklahoma," Weintz said. "It's inconvenient for consumers, but also bad for business."
Wright said his goal is to simplify the state's tax structure, but he didn't expect so much opposition from the alcohol industry. The bill is still a work in progress, and the language could change, he said.
Currently, there are three taxation structures for alcohol, including excise tax, sales tax and a tax for on-premises consumption.
"Ideally, it would be good if we could go to two taxes instead of three," Wright said. "The less levels of tax you have, the better it is in terms of being able to keep people from cheating the system."