Storeowners bring beer brawl to Statehouse

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Getting 3.2 beer out of Colorado gas stations and supermarkets is turning into a real battle.

Just ask Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo, the sponsor of House Bill 1192, which, if passed, would allow the sale of full-strength beer at convenience stores.

When McFadyen and Sen. Jennifer Viega, D-Denver, held their bill introduction press conference in January, they packed a crowd into the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol and displayed 66,000 signed petitions from residents who said they want to be able to buy full-strength beer in convenience stores and supermarkets.

At the time, many convenience store owners said they are struggling in the wake of a 2008 law allowing liquor stores to remain open on Sunday, and they argued that allowing them to sell full-strength beer would help.

Meanwhile, outside the chamber, representatives of the state’s liquor stores told reporters that changing the state’s liquor laws would doom their family-owned businesses.

Fast-forward to the first week of March. Not much has changed since that press conference. HB 1192 was scheduled to be heard in the House Business Affairs Committee twice, but was pulled both times.

The problem? HB 1192 supporters don’t have enough votes.

“We will see if I have the votes, but, at this point, I don’t know,” McFadyen said. “The issue is important enough to me that I will keep working to get the votes because I would rather have this be legislated than end up on the ballot — and there is a distinct possibility of that.”

Despite McFadyen’s well-grounded fear that the effort to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer could wind up on the state ballot if the Legislature doesn’t act, opponents of HB 1192 say a bad law can’t be made into something positive, no matter the effort or venue.

“We have had some success in showing lawmakers that HB 1192 doesn’t do much of anything to bring out inequity in the system. It will only create it,” said Jeanne McEvoy, executive director for the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association. “The average liquor store gets anywhere from 48 percent to 80 percent of their revenue from beer sales. This bill will strike at the heart of the independent liquor store in Colorado, and they will die if it is passed. That is the bottom line.”

Although the bill has been largely out of the public view since January, lobbying has been going strong behind the scenes.

Sean Duffy — a onetime staffer to former Gov. Bill Owens and Kenney Group lobbyist — has been pushing hard to get the bill passed. He has pulled beer samples from liquor store shelves around Colorado to test alcohol content in an effort that, he says, proves liquor stores are illegally selling 3.2 beer today. Duffy also has rebutted every statistical prediction of job loss and sales decrease presented by liquor-store owners to build their case.

“They don’t want to talk about their bogus numbers around job loss or talk about how they are selling 3.2 beer — which they are not legally able to do,” Duffy said. “They don’t want the debate. They just want to say they will have to close down if this passes — and then move on.”

But McEvoy and the Beverage Association say it’s Duffy’s numbers that are false, and claim the methodology he used to test the beer samples from liquor stores for alcohol content lacks scientific merit.

McEvoy, a former liquor-store owner, said she has enough experience to know that the numbers she presents are accurate and realistic.

“With all due respect to Mr. Duffy, I know of what I speak here,” McEvoy said. “We aren’t just coming up with these numbers out of thin air. We know they are true, based on the experiences of many independently owned liquor store owners in Colorado.”

As is usually the case in politics, the truth probably lays somewhere in the middle. But just how much of that truth will come out before March 11, when HB 1192 is next scheduled to come before the Business Affairs Committee, is yet to be determined.

But this time, McFadyen says, the bill will get a hearing — with or without the votes.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com