Oklahoma Legislature showed thirst for liquor law reform this session
The Oklahoma Legislature served up several changes to the state's alcohol laws this session, including a bill allowing counties to vote on Sunday liquor sales and another that lets breweries have the same hours of operation as bars and restaurants.
Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, had adopted alcohol law reform as one of her top issues. Bice authored several alcohol-related measures this session, including the bill giving counties an option on Sunday liquor sales. Gov. Mary Fallin signed Senate Bill 211 into law on Thursday.
Oklahoma voters approved State Question 792 in 2016, which included sweeping reforms to the state's alcohol laws. SQ 792 will allow wine to be sold in Oklahoma grocery stores for the first time when most of the measure takes effect in October 2018. However, allowing liquor stores to be open on Sundays was intentionally left out of the ballot measure, Bice said.
"Although more than three dozen states allow for Sunday sales, I felt it was important to empower local communities to decide whether or not to allow liquor stores the option to be open," Bice said. "Should communities choose to put the issue to a vote of the people, it would bring some parity to liquor stores since grocery and convenience stores will be able to sell some of the same items."
The bill allows county commissioners to set elections on Sunday sales, or residents can start petition efforts to get a measure on the ballot.
However, Bryan Kerr, president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, said opening on Sunday won't help package stores in the state survive once grocers gain the ability to sell wine in 2018. Opening on Sunday will be "a wash" to most liquor stores, because of the added operating cost of staying open seven days a week, he said.
"We don't believe Sunday sales will help any of our members stores economically, but we support it because it will benefit our customers and we don't think adversely affect public health or safety," Kerr said.
The Retail Liquor Association had hoped for the passage of a bill this legislative session, that would have allowed parents to bring their children into stores, but the measure never made it out of committee.
- Related to this story
- Video: Coop Ale Works - Tap Room possibilities (2017-05-25)
Senate Bill 411, also authored by Bice, expands the hours of operation for local breweries. The bill also contains a slight expansion in opening times for liquor stores, allowing package stores to open at 8 a.m. instead of 10 a.m.
Craft breweries in Oklahoma have only been allowed to serve full-strength beer in tap rooms since August 2016. However, state law has still tightly restricted their hours of operation, requiring breweries to close by 9 p.m. Beginning in October 2018, SB 411 will give breweries the ability to stay open until 2 a.m., like bars and restaurants.
The recent law changes spurred Oklahoma City-based Coop Ale Works to open a new 2,000 square foot tap room at its brewery in southwest Oklahoma City where customers can have a beer, play board games and purchase Coop products to take home. The tap room has already lured customers from all over the United States for a few beers, Sean Mossman, director of marketing for Coop, said.
"I think it's only going to continue to help our industry grow," Mossman said of SB 411.
Alex Weintz, executive director for the industry-backed, pro-alcohol law reform group Modernize Oklahoma said the law changes are already spurring new business in the state. Several new craft brewers have launched in Oklahoma he said.
Beer fans had long lamented that many brands, including products from Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co. and California's Stone Brewing Co. were unavailable in Oklahoma. Both brewers recently made the decision to begin distributing in the state because of pending changes to state alcohol laws, Weintz said.
"I'm excited about the way the session turned out and I think many Oklahomans will be too," Weintz said. "Most of these changes will go into effect in 2018, but you can already see changes in the alcohol landscape just in anticipation."