POSTED ON MAY 30, 2012:
Challenge to Change
Latest push for wine sales in grocery stores has plenty of critics
Jack Bird has owned a liquor store for about 30 years.
At Columbia Package Store, 2702 E. 15 St., he estimates that wine purchases make up roughly 40 percent of all sales.
An initiative petition to sell wine in grocery stores might change that, with the group Oklahomans for Modern Laws hoping to get their proposal on the November statewide ballot.
Wine and strong beer now can only be sold in package stores, also known as liquor stores, which, according to state law, must be owned by persons with at least 10 years of residency in Oklahoma, among other restrictions.
It's a system that's kept large grocery stores out of the often lucrative alcohol sales they've enjoyed in other states.
The petition could change that, for at least some retailers. The proposal would only affect counties with a population of 50,000 or more. If those counties then vote in a local election to approve it, they could allow wine sales only in large stores with at least 25,000 square feet of space.
"It's not going anywhere real quick," said Bird, 76, explaining that he thinks business forces within the industry seem content with things as they are.
And time is of the essence. With pending legal challenges, petitioners will have only 90 days to collect the necessary 155,216 signatures.
"I don't think there's ever been a petition collected during this time period, from about June through August, so there's really no precedent for it," said Brian Howe of Oklahomans for Modern Laws, adding that "overall, we still like the position we're in."
Vocal support for the petition initiative seems to be lacking from some groups who might, at first glance, seem to be natural allies for change.
"We're neutral," said Andrew Snyder, president of the Oklahoma Grape Growers and Wine Makers Association.
Despite the petition group touting how a change in the law "could benefit local wineries by providing them an opportunity to expand their operations," Snyder said his group has always been neutral on the issue.
"We always have tried to stay out of this fray, as we understand that this ultimately could affect the liquor stores that we currently distribute our wines though," Snyder said.
At least one Tulsa-area winery owner doesn't have much enthusiasm for the latest effort.
"Every few years this comes up," said Dianne Jones, who runs Nuyaka Creek Winery with her husband, Pete.
She understands why there's disagreement; "I can see all sides of it," Jones said.
If a major, national retailer begins selling wine, "those places are not going to stock my wine anyway," said Jones. "They're only going to stock wines that move real fast, really well-known cheap wines."
Besides, the current petition "sounds to me like it's awfully confusing."
Jones said she supported "letting people make the choices." "But at the same time, unless they do something to help the liquor stores, I just can't see it" passing, she said.
Howe said the petition aimed to do exactly that. Only up to six licenses may be issued to a single entity. Cutting out convenience stores was a concession to liquor stores owners, Howe said.
But Bryan Kerr, a member of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, said his group will never endorse the sale of wine in grocery stores.
"The people in Oklahoma don't see the value in it," Kerr said.
He didn't bring it up, but the most recent polls show at least some support for his statement.
Last year, pollster SoonerPoll reported that 61 percent of respondents opposed the sale of wine and strong beer in grocery stores, with 36 percent supporting the changes and less than 3 percent having no opinion.
The petition group's decision to focus on only grocery stores has also created some bad feelings. At one time, convenience store chain QuikTrip and Oklahomans for Modern Laws seemed to have common ground.
"QuikTrip met with the group that was pushing this initiative for the past couple of years," said Mike Thornbrugh, spokesman for the Tulsa-based company that operates stores in 11 states.
In nearly all of those states, the stores sell alcohol, so "they were asking for our expertise," Thornbrugh said.
But by submitting an initiative to the state without referencing convenience stores, the group appears to have lost a potential ally in QuikTrip.
"What they did when they filed the petition is they ignored what we spent a lot of time in explaining to them," Thornbrugh said. Asked if QuikTrip would work with the group in the future, Thornbrugh said no, adding that the people behind the petition are "not the kind of people we want to be associated with."
Howe said his group simply wanted to make the petition more favorable to voters.
So who are the people behind Oklahomans for Modern Laws? In public, Howe has often been the spokesman for the group.
Campaign finance reports show that the group has spent about $125,000 this year through April on their efforts, most of it on petition circulation. The report lists about that much in contributions from Sean Campbell, described as "an independent oil and gas investor." Campbell is also the chair and treasurer for the group, according to the group's Statement of Organization filed with state authorities in February.
"I can tell you I'm an Oklahoma citizen. I've been doing this for seven years, part-time," Howe said. "I have no real connection to any grocer or liquor company. Neither does Sean."
He said the group worked with an attorney to carefully craft language that would hold up legally, but challenges have been filed putting the matter before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
On May 23, a referee for the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides in a roughly hour-long hearing.
Jon Brightmire, an attorney representing a liquor-store owner, challenging the petition, argued that the petition violates equal protection laws and the state constitution.
"The equal protection clause argument is that this proposed amendment would treat package store licensees different than grocery store licensees," Brightmire said, explaining that while package store owners have many restrictions, grocery store licensees would be free to be based outside of Oklahoma, for example.
Also, the state's constitution explicitly requires that initiative petitions be focused only on a single subject.
"We contend that this initiative petition contains multiple subjects," Brightmire said, explaining that allowing corporations to receive licenses to sell wine is a separate issue.
Another protest was filed on behalf of the nonprofit group Fighting Addiction Through Education and the Oklahoma Prevention Policy Alliance, with similar arguments.
He added that he didn't know when the court would make a ruling on the case, but he expects it to happen soon.
Kerr, with the liquor store association, said that liquor stores actually favor liberalization of some laws, such as allowing minors to enter stores with a parent.
As far as wine and strong beer being sold outside package stores,"I don't see it changing anytime soon," he said.
Bird, however, thinks differently.
"When it does happen ... you will see little small stores close," Bird said, adding that he expects many types of stores and large chains to eventually sell strong beer and wine.
"I don't think you can stop progress, and that's what this is," Bird said.
Howe said that if the state Supreme Court allows the petition to move forward, he suspects the group will get "multiple endorsements moving forward."
Ultimately, the group wrote the petition the way they did because Oklahoma is "a conservative state, so we've got to take baby steps," Howe said, noting that off-premises alcohol laws haven't really changed since 1959.
"Anyway you tweak this law a little bit or make a change, you end up upsetting one person or making someone unhappy," he said.
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