Lawmakers struggle to put a cork in grocery sales debate ahead of ballot

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AURORA | State lawmakers scrambled this week to craft legislation that would stave off a ballot measure this fall allowing grocery store chains to sell more alcohol products.

The proposal — Senate Bill 197 — would allow grocery store chains to sell full-strength beer and wine at five locations to start, and allow them to buy additional licenses from a liquor store.

But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said every detail about the bill, including the number of licenses and how close the stores can be to liquor stores, is being debated as lawmakers work with grocers and liquor stores to try to avoid a costly ballot fight.

Steadman, who opposes the measures planned for the ballot that would allow grocery chains to sell full-strength beer at all their stores, said a legislative compromise would change the state’s liquor laws, but not in the “radical” way the ballot measure would.

“The bill is designed to transition us to a different system of retail liquor sales and not have it happen overnight,” he said. 

But time is tight for the legislation, which was just introduced last week. The legislative session is slated to end next week.

“We’re running out of time,” he said.

The fight over who can and who can’t sell retail alcohol is not a new one at the state capitol. Lawmakers have tried, and failed, several times in recent years to craft rules that would allow grocers to sell full-strength beer and wine. Under the current rules, liquor licenses are limited to just one per business, which means chains can’t sell at more than one store and liquor stores are limited to one storefront.

Grocery stores are allowed to sell the lower-alcohol, 3.2-percent beer at their other locations, another quirk Colorado shares with just a few states.

As of now, there are two ballot measures planned for the fall. One would allow full-strength beer and wine sales at grocery stores; another would also allow them to sell liquor.

Local liquor stores, as well as several Colorado craft brewers, have lined up against the measures, saying they would not only crush the state’s mom-and-pop liquor stores but squeeze small craft brewers out of shelf space at the chains.

While lawmakers are haggling over a potential fix, the two sides haven’t given up their fight, though they are paying close attention to the negotiations around Steadman’s bill.

Jennie Peek-Dunstone, a spokeswoman for Keep Colorado Local, which opposes the ballot measures, said the group’s eyes are still fixed on November.

“We are focused on the November ballot and ensuring that we protect our local biz and our Colorado craft breweries,” she said.

The group has already spent $3 million on advertising, she said.

Still, the group is following the negotiations, and Peek-Dunstone said they are worried about how letting more grocery stores sell alcohol could affect the small businesses that currently dominate the market. Any additional grocery sales likely won’t be good for those small businesses, she said.

But what shape the legislation will eventually take is hardly clear, she said.

“It’s so hard to guess at this point,” she said.

Matt Chandler, a spokesperson for Your Choice Colorado, the group backing the ballot measures, said his group welcomes the legislation.

“We’re pleased to hear that others recognize what consumers have been saying for years  — that Colorado’s laws are antiquated and changes benefiting the customer are necessary,” he said.

Still, they aren’t throwing their weight away from the ballot and to the state capitol.

“We are reviewing the legislation, at the same time however, we are not altering our plan to take this directly to Colorado voters in November should a compromise not be reached,” he said.