Right now is a critical time for the Oklahomans for Modern Laws movement. The grassroots group will soon be submitting a petition to allow wine (and possibly strong beer) in grocery stores to the Oklahoma Secretary of State.
Attorneys are reviewing the language of the petition put together by Brian Howe and the rest of the Modern Laws organization.
If the petition is declared constitutional by the Secretary of State, it'll be ready to hit the streets within weeks. The petition will ask Oklahomans to sign if they support wine in grocery and convenience stores. Though the group hasn't decided yet, adding "strong beer to the petition is still on the table," Howe said.
Howe and his group have worked on changing Oklahoma's liquor laws since 2004. "We've had a lot of ups and downs, hit a couple of dead ends," Howe said. "But we kept pursuing it.
"When you're changing a multi-million dollar industry, there are a lot of people who have a lot of investment in it staying the status quo," Howe said.
If new legislation passed allowing wine in grocery stores, package stores would face steeper competition. And therein lies the rub. Local wine and beer retail outlets are steadfastly against the new legislation, but Howe said he understood their opposition. "I don't know that we can offer them anything that would basically mitigate the point that they'll have more competition on the wine side," he said.
"I don't know that I can necessarily blame them for not wanting to compromise," Howe said. Allowing wine and strong beer to be sold outside of retail liquor stores could drastically cut into local package stores' profits.
One of those invested in maintaining the status quo is J.P. Richard, president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma (RLAO). He isn't sure why Howe has stepped to the forefront of this issue. "His appearance on the scene and as a spokesman has always been a mystery to all of us because he doesn't seem to have a dog in the fight," Richard said. "If he were in some way related directly or indirectly to the industry, I would understand. He's like an apparition, he just appears."
Howe said he became interested in state politics after an internship in the Oklahoma State Senate. He also formerly owned a bar in Oklahoma City's Bricktown. Now he owns a medical supply distribution company in Oklahoma City, and works on liquor legislation as a side project. "This is more of a passion of mine, and it's the right thing to do for Oklahoma," he said. "We're making a lot of progressive steps."
Howe said he started Oklahomans for Modern Laws "as a way to not only make things more convenient for Oklahomans but to improve our image." Many Okies have friends and relatives from out-of-state who are confused about 3-point beer and our unusual laws.
Last year, Howe and his group "attempted to submit a bill that would change both the wine and strong beer [laws], and it met a lot of industry opposition," he said. "Eventually, the legislature caved to the industry. I believe we're faced with no other option than to go the petition route."
Richard isn't so sure about Howe's motivations. "Everything in life, outside of war and sex, has to do with money -- politics, this. My question is, 'Where is the money behind this? What does the money say?'"
The petition will likely rack up $300,000-$450,000 in legal, consulting and circulation costs. Howe said he has nothing to hide. Money for Oklahomans for Modern Laws comes from "the business community in Oklahoma City, from connections in Tulsa," Howe said. "We're not fully funded but are in the process of raising money and the bulk of the money has and will come from individuals. I don't have any corporate money as of now and we've done that on purpose," he said.
The chairman of Oklahomans for Modern Laws is Sean Campbell, who has loaned the organization $127,000 according to a report from the Oklahoma State Ethics Commission. The rest of the group's financial reports are also available through the ethics commission.
Meanwhile, the group is searching out enthusiastic volunteers to help cut costs. They've also hired a circulation firm who will help them manage and verify signatures. The group's attorney is Lee Slater, who's been a legal advisor to the Oklahoma Senate since 1988. Another hired hand is Larry Wood, an Oklahoma political consultant.
If the petition is declared constitutional by the Secretary of State, "it'll move into the circulation phase," Howe said. "We'll have 90 days to gather signatures, and in this case it's 15 percent of the last election turnout." That magic number is 138,570, based on 2010 election voter turnout.
Once the signatures are gathered in the 90-day time period, the petition will again face the Secretary of State, who must verify the validity of the signatures. "If no one challenges it, [the petition] will go to the (Oklahoma) Attorney General and they'll write the state question and use the type of verbiage that best informs voters," Howe said. This process must be completed by early September for the proposition to be added to November's statewide ballot.
Howe thinks the petition will hit the streets by mid-March. But "even if it drifts to April, we've got a lot of outdoor events throughout the spring to get signatures," he said.
The idea of allowing strong beer and wine in grocery stores and convenience stores is popular among younger Okies, while the Oklahoma City and Tulsa Chambers of Commerce are also supportive of the new legislation. OKC's chamber has new liquor laws on its legislative agenda, and the Tulsa Metro Chamber (though T-Town has remained more neutral on the topic) has added it to its joint legislative agenda as well.
But everyone wants a compromise hashed out with Oklahoma's retail liquor stores. Howe doesn't see how a compromise would work. "We're never going to be able to make everybody happy," Howe said. "We've reached out to beer wholesalers, liquor wholesalers, grocers, and met with convenience store owners, and we didn't have 100 percent support from any of those. But we do have individual companies and individual grocers and convenience stores that support us."
It's been a long and winding road for Howe, who started this legislative adventure when he was in his mid-20s. He said the legislation has gained ground in recent years after a couple of senators (like former State Senator Andrew Rice) proposed laws to allow wine and strong beer in grocery stores.
But Richard isn't convinced. "The guy is clueless about the industry. He doesn't have a clue, he has no idea how it works or what we do or anything about the constitutional mandates," Richard said.
Howe said he found it interesting that Richard and the rest of RLAO are championing a bill in the Oklahoma Legislature right now that would also amend the state's constitution to suit retail liquor stores. The gist of the proposition would allow stores that sell liquor to sell nonalcoholic beverages and mixers, along with wine and spirit accessories. Though Richard has said the current system "isn't broken," this proposed ballot measure would definitely alter the way package stores operate. "They want to expand the market when it benefits them," Howe said. "It's a little bit hypocritical."
The petition will be available to sign online and in person at various springtime festivals, like the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City, from Sept. 13-23.
To sign up as a volunteer or to check into their petition, go to okmodernlaws.com.
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