The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local news

May 19, 2013

Wine in grocery stores gets renewed look

OKLAHOMA CITY — Supporters of a plan to permit some grocery stores in Oklahoma’s most populous counties to sell wine plan to launch a new petition drive to put the proposal to a statewide vote.

The plan, promoted by the advocacy group Oklahomans for Modern Laws, will be resubmitted to voters this summer about a year after it was withdrawn following a Supreme Court challenge, said the group’s attorney, former Secretary of State Glenn Coffee.

The group originally launched its signature drive in April 2012. But members were forced to withdraw it after legal proceedings against the proposed constitutional amendment delayed the start of the 90-day period in which supporters needed to obtain 155,216 signatures to place the issue on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Supporters now are hoping for a public referendum on the proposal in the November 2014 general election, Coffee said. He said he did not know how much a campaign to promote the proposal will cost.

Currently, wine sales in Oklahoma are restricted by the state Constitution to licensed retail package liquor stores, although the state’s more than 60 wineries are permitted to sell their own vintages in their tasting rooms.

The initiative petition proposes 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.  

House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said a statewide vote might pass, but he thinks opposition in the Legislature would be stiff.

“There have been some attempts in the Legislature to do it, but it usually meets a lot of resistance. If it does pass a state vote, it will be close,” Jackson said.

The legislative process is set up to make it difficult for new laws to be created, and Jackson said there probably is too much opposition for it to pass the Legislature.

State Representative John Enns, R-Enid, said the attempt has been made in the Legislature and did not pass.

“You look at other states, and they sell wine in grocery stores. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, but obviously some do. If it goes on a ballot, we will find out what people think,” Enns said.

Grocery store wine sales 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 measure would make buying a bottle of wine more convenient for average Oklahomans, said Coffee, former president pro tem of the Oklahoma Senate. If approved by voters, it would bring about 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.

A website created by supporters of the plan says state laws governing off-premise sales have been virtually unchanged since Prohibition’s appeal.

“Societies evolve and so should the laws that govern them,” it says. “This small change sends a message that Oklahoma is willing to make the tough choices to make convenience and quality of life a top priority for our citizens.”

In a ruling handed down in June, the state Supreme Court rejected a formal protest against the plan by a coalition of organizations that attacked the measure on constitutional grounds and expressed concern that increasing the number of retail alcohol outlets will increase the opportunity for abuse.

Coffee said supporters likely will resubmit the same petition that was filed last year and that the likelihood of another formal protest is uncertain.

“Anybody can bring another challenge,” he said.

The proposal is expected to face tough opposition from the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, comprised of about 80 of the state’s 650 licensed package liquor retailers.

“Our move would be to go to the court of public opinion,” said J.P. Richard, president of the retail group. “That’s the only thing we can do, convince the public how poor it is.”

Richard criticized the plan because it excludes most of Oklahoma’s 77 counties and would allow wine sales only in corporately owned stores that are at least 25,000 square feet.

“It favors about five or six national food chains,” he said. “You’ve got to follow the money.”

Richard has said the initiative petition would allow out-of-state corporations to purchase multiple licenses for the sale of wine in counties that have approved the sales.

And wine would no longer be treated as liquor when it is sold in grocery stores, but would be placed in a new category between beer that contains 3.2 percent alcohol, which already is sold in grocery and convenience stores, and liquor containing higher volumes of alcohol, which are sold exclusively in package liquor stores.

Richard said his organization already had developed a basic outline of a plan to fight the measure before supporters pulled the petition last year. He said opponents could spend up to $200,000 to fight the measure.

“We’ve got plenty of time,” he said.

Staff Writer Robert Barron contributed to this story.

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