The continuing saga over expanding liquor sales in Colorado took more bizarre twists and turns Wednesday as lawmakers narrowly advanced legislation.
The House Finance Committee advanced a measure on a 7-6 vote that would build on last year’s historic overhaul of liquor laws that allowed for the gradual sale of full-strength alcohol in grocery stores over 20 years.
“House Bill 1370 is only meant to give some sense of parity or the ability to compete with Colorado’s grocery stores as they move into a new environment after January 1st, 2019 when the grocery stores and Walmart can sell full-strength beer,” said Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, a sponsor of the bill.
The bipartisan measure is also sponsored by Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster.
Some, however, say the new bill comes too soon, as many of the provisions from last year’s compromise are still being phased in.
The bill heard in committee on Wednesday, House Bill 1370, would allow liquor stores to gradually expand to up to nine locations over 10 years. It also would permit big-box stores like Walmart and Target to expand to 20 liquor licenses over a 20-year period. Supporters of the bill say it would level the playing field after last year’s compromise, which allowed grocery chains to get in the game.
Similar efforts failed in the legislature earlier this year, as the conversation devolved into a referendum on big-box chains and their impact on small retailers.
Where the conversation gets strange is the impact lobbyists have had on the discussion. The effort has caused bitter splits, with lobbyists for Applejack Wine and Spirits in Wheat Ridge and a handful of other retailers arguing that the deal last year put them at a disadvantage.
Smaller liquor stores, however, represented by the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, said Walmart was never intended to be part of the expansion last year, despite Walmart and its lobbyists saying they were absolutely supposed to be part of the deal.
“I want to apologize for the intense lobbying that has been directed towards all of you … I know what a hardship and what pressure you all have had,” Liston said.
The legislation that advanced Wednesday also would allow Natural Grocers to begin selling alcohol, something the grocer attempted earlier in the session but lost on.
Perhaps the strangest twist on Wednesday revolved around a text message that was mistakenly sent to a lobbyist in the discussions, in which Jeanne McEvoy, executive director of the Licensed Beverage Association, said, “I can’t send this bill out to my members. I’m afraid they will like it.” It raises flags, as CLBA is opposing the measure.
McEvoy said the text was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek,” and that she didn’t share the bill with all of her group’s 1,600 members because she didn’t have time to share it with such a large group and solicit feedback from everyone. The bill was introduced on Tuesday and heard in committee on Wednesday. McEvoy was grilled over the text during the hearing.
“It was a remark made in jest and it just went to the wrong person,” she said.
Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, didn’t appear convinced, “It seemed to be more than a joke,” he said.
“I didn’t have time and that’s what it was, they would look at some things in here and say, ‘That’s really good,’ and not understand the consequences of what they think is good because they didn’t look at the whole thing,” McEvoy explained as to why she hadn’t shared it with all of her group’s members.
She added that an expansion of liquor licenses wouldn’t help smaller liquor stores, as many wouldn’t have the resources to open up additional stores.
“The concerns are nine liquor stores. Who can do that? Who has the resources to do that? We know who has the resources to do that,” McEvoy said, pointing to larger liquor stores in the state, such as Applejack Wine and Spirits.
But Mary Alice Mandarich, a lobbyist for Applejack, said the legislation this year is meant to complete negotiations that started last year.
“We’re following the instructions of the group that met last year. When 197 was negotiated it was also done late in the session and the issue of the retail liquor license and the number of licenses they would get was unresolved,” Mandarich said. “What they were told was to come back next year, run your own bill, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”