Compromise bill on liquor store sales clears Senate hurdle; ballot fight still possible

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AURORA | After a week of nearly around-the-clock negotiations over where Coloradans buy their booze, a state Senate committee signed off on a complicated compromise Friday that still may not preclude a ballot battle in November.

If the bill — which would allow grocers to sell full-strength beer and wine at more stores and let liquor store owners open more locations — becomes law, backers hope it will prevent several ballot questions this fall aimed at opening up the state’s restrictive alcohol market.

But whether that will happen was unclear during testimony Friday at the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee. The bill had the backing of liquor stores, craft brewers and major beer distributors, and the committee passed it unanimously, moving it to the Senate Appropriations Committee, but questions remained.

A representative from Your Choice Colorado, a group including grocery stores that is backing a ballot measure to allow them to sell full-strength beer and wine, said he couldn’t commit Friday to dropping the ballot question if the bill becomes law.

And and a separate group representing convenience stores said Wednesday they’re not circulating petitions to get Prop 115 on the fall ballot, which would allow convenience and grocery stores statewide sell full strength beer, but that measure doesn’t address wine or liquor.

The compromise bill’s sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said he is hopeful the stores will drop their ballot measure and line up behind his Senate Bill 197.

Steadman said he understands the desire to let grocery stores sell full-strength beer and wine, but he worries about how an abrupt change would effect small liquor stores around the state.

“What we are trying to buffer is competitive pressures on small businesses,” he said.

Under current law, chain liquor stores are not allowed and retailers are allowed to operate in just one location. Grocery stores with multiple locations can only sell alcohol at one location.

Under Steadman’s bill, grocery stores and other retailers with a liquor license now could expand to five locations in 2017 and add more every few years until 2037 when the limit goes away. To expand though, grocery stores would need to buy liquor licenses from existing liquor stores and would be barred from adding a license close to an already-existing store.

Liquor stores would also be allowed to add locations and expand their offerings to include food and other products.

Convenience stores also are backing a ballot measure that would allow them to sell more than just the 3.2-percent beer they are allowed to sell now.

Steadman said his bill would phase out 3.2-beer in two years and also create a working group to study how to change the rules for convenience stores.

But, he said, adding them to the mix would add more complications to an already complicated measure.

“That is something I’ll leave for future general assemblies,” he said.