Senate kills Williams bill to allow Wal-Mart to sell full-strength liquor

In this June 9, 2016, photo, a man shops for beer at Liquor Mart in Boulder. The next day, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill to gradually allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, liquor and wine, the biggest change to state liquor laws since the end of Prohibition. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this June 9, 2016, photo, a man shops for beer at Liquor Mart in Boulder. The next day, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill to gradually allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, liquor and wine, the biggest change to state liquor laws since the end of Prohibition. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The Colorado Senate on Monday narrowly voted down a bill that would have allowed Wal-Mart to sell full-strength beer, wine and liquor by clearing up a statute passed last year. This as the state begins expanding the number of liquor licenses grocery and big box stores can acquire over the next 20 years.

Described by backers as a simple technical clean-up to last year’s landmark legislative revamping of the state’s liquor code, Senate Bill 143, sponsored by state Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, met fierce, bipartisan opposition from senators who argued that the bill would devastate small liquor stores throughout the state and wreak havoc on Colorado’s breweries and distilleries.

The bill went down 18-17 with Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, casting the deciding vote at the end of a tense roll call.

“I don’t think this bill, as written, is ready for prime time,” said state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, asking for her colleagues to oppose it.

Williams acknowledged that “there were some oversights … there were some mistakes” in last year’s Senate Bill 197 — the over-haul bill Williams also sponsored when she was a member of the House — and maintained Monday that Senate Bill 143 was necessary to “allow for the proper implementation of the grand compromise.”

The legislation signed into law last year — Williams referred to it several times as “the grand compromise” — averted several proposed ballot measures that opponents warned could have erased mom-and-pop liquor stores from Colorado’s retail landscape.

Before last year’s legislation was passed and signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado law restricted liquor retailers to a single license statewide, so King Soopers, Safeway, Costco and other merchants have been able to sell full-strength beer, wine and liquor at only one location. (The law allows grocery and similar stores to sell weak beer and other beverages at multiple locations.)

Williams contended that provisions in last year’s complicated bill — involving how giant retailers operate pharmacies — inadvertently boxed out Wal-Mart from joining other retail giants from being able to add liquor licenses over the next two decades until restrictions on the number of licenses an owner can hold disappear.

“Nothing goes against what the stakeholders believed was part of the deal last year,” she said.

But state Sen. Rhonda Fields said it appeared to her that Wal-Mart last year had just wanted to be able to sell full-strength beer — not full-strength spirits — and had changed its mind and wanted a bigger piece of the booze pie.

Williams reiterated that Wal-Mart had been part of last year’s negotiations and had intended to “sell all liquors everyone else gets to sell.”

“There was no deception here,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that happen under this dome, and it was a simple oversight.”

Majority Caucus Chair Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, said that she remembered things differently — that last year’s legislation had begun as a discussion to expand licenses for retailers who wanted to be able to sell full-strength beer, not every spirit under the sun. Small liquor store owners, she added, would be stunned that lawmakers were considering whether to allow Wal-Marts to sell everything the mom-and-pop stores had on their shelves.

“What the liquor store owners did was put their trust in us to do the right thing,” Marble said. “And, I’ll tell you what — epic fail.”

She warned that Williams’s bill would lead to the gradual disappearance of the state’s budding micro distilleries and craft breweries, arguing that giant retailers would only want to stock the most popular beverages.

“The only thing historic about this is that it’s a historic giveaway and destruction of the liquor industry,” Marble said, adding, “It will hurt the liquor store, and it will destroy the liquor industry as we know it.”

State Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, said that the state’s wine, beer and spirit retail industry was changing, with plenty of grocery giants poised to begin adding stores, whether the oversight that left out Wal-Mart was corrected or not.

“They were a part of that,” Tate said, recalling stakeholder negotiations that led to last year’s bill. “They made a technical mistake and, coming up and agreeing to the deal, they didn’t realize they weren’t technically part of the deal. And that’s what we’re here to fix.”

Former state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, a key player in last year’s compromise, said after the vote that it was important to remember that Senate Bill 197 was never meant to resolve every concern surrounding the matter.

“It’s one big balancing act,” he said, and then added, “It’s not like we caused a flood, we just removed some obstacles for some things to start going. We set this in motion last year. It wasn’t the definitive be-all and end-all.”

Pointing out that last year’s legislation established a working group to address some outstanding issues — “we realized we couldn’t figure it all out” — Steadman noted that the demise of Senate Bill 143 might not bode well for how lawmakers sort out questions surrounding the sale of full-strength beer.

As for one of the disputes central to the debate over Senate Bill 143, Steadman said there was no question that Wal-Mart’s representatives dropped the ball last year during negotiations over the compromise legislation.

Target, he recalled, made a point of making sure that the company’s arrangement to contract with CVS Pharmacy didn’t torpedo the chain’s ability to start adding full-strength liquor licenses — there’s language in the bill grandfathering pharmaceutical operations that coincides with Target’s contract with CVS — but Wal-Mart didn’t address the issue on its own behalf.

“Target only took care of it for Target,” Steadman said. “The intent last year was to solve that problem for Target, and the intent would have been to resolve it for Wal-Mart too, but they didn’t bring it up. They were focused on some things more than others and now they’re more focused on the whole ball of wax.”

ernest@coloradostatesman.com

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