When a joint task force considering changes to Oklahoma laws to allow wine and strong beer in grocery stores disbanded last year with no recommendation, the likelihood of seeing a legislative proposal became bleak. And so a group of Oklahomans did what Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, predicted would happen in the aftermath of the task force’s impasse: They started a petition drive.
The resulting Oklahomans for Modern Laws has indicated it soon will submit the petition to the Secretary of State for approval prior to distribution. That petition would be allowed only 90 days of circulation to acquire 138,570 signatures.
Even if everything goes well, the task force already learned last year that Oklahomans are nearly split on the issue. The Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma and liquor distributors would be expected to align with many conservative Christians to fight the measure, making the success of such an initiative questionable.
A brew for parity
“As a consumer, I understand the desire for wine and beer in grocery stores,” said Chris Herford (pictured), a member of another grassroots organization called Oklahomans for Alcohol Law Reform (OFALR). He said last year’s bills would have been bad for small businesses.
“Competition is fine,” he said, “but small businesses need a chance to compete, so they’d need a ramp-up period to keep up with new legislation.”
Instead, he said his group is focused on “modernizing” other state laws, including bringing genuine brewpubs to Oklahoma and allowing breweries the same rights as wineries. OFALR also wants package stores to be able to sell cold wine and beer, and for stores to open on Sunday if the owner so chooses.
“Our laws are set up so that wineries have more rights than breweries,” Herford said. “Right now, it’s illegal for breweries to sell their beer to customers, but wineries can do it. It’s a very simple solution, really. Where the law says ‘wineries,’ just add ‘and breweries.’”
The brewpub issue is a matter of aesthetics and craft. It’s currently illegal for brewpubs in Oklahoma to brew beer stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol. A change to the laws would permit Belle Isle Brewery, Bricktown Brewery and other brewpubs to make beers according to historic style, so that a quadrupel or Imperial stout would be close to 10 percent alcohol by volume, rather than the thin low-alcohol beer now allowed.
Changing the law
State Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, has worked with OFALR to bring equality to the state’s laws. He supports House Bill 2477, which will allow breweries to serve 10-ounce samples to customers, much as wineries are able to do tastings on premise.
Dorman said he believed the legislation will get a full vote in the House within the next two weeks. Dorman’s bill to allow package stores the same privilege, HB 2954, did not make it out of the committee process.
In a post on the OFALR Facebook page, Bud Scott, a lobbyist for the Oklahoma Pub Association, speculated on the fate of HB 2477.
“It is likely we will secure passage on the House floor,” Scott wrote, “but the real challenge will be securing a hearing in the Senate, where a general hold on … related bills is in place due to this being an election year and the compromise in place regarding the beer and wine sales in grocery stores issue.
“Only bills limiting service or licensing have been granted hearings in the Senate and it is unlikely to change this year.”