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Sunday liquor sales battle brewing in Indiana

An effort is afoot to change Indiana’s law, but owners of liquor stores say the move would be devastating

Indiana is the toughest place in the nation to buy take-home beer or liquor on Sundays.

While most states limit Sunday alcohol sales in some ways, Hoosiers face the broadest restrictions.

Indiana prohibits Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor at grocery and packaged liquor stores. Connecticut lifted a similar ban in May, leaving Indiana standing alone.

The longtime ban has remained in place for religious and economic reasons. And though it has been eroded somewhat in recent years, state lawmakers trying to do away with the ban this year aren’t hopeful.

The powerful packaged liquor store lobby has been able for years to block any change, arguing that allowing Sunday sales would let grocery stores drive smaller packaged liquor stores out of business.

State Sen. Phil Boots, a Crawfordsville Republican sponsoring legislation to lift the ban, doubts the outcome will be any different this year.

Asked to assess his chances, Boots candidly responded: “Slim to none.” But he said will push ahead on principle.

“(Republicans) are supposed to be free enterprise, and we’re supposed to be free commerce. But in this area, we’re not for some reason,” Boots said. “We are now the last state in the nation that allows you to go to a bar or sporting event and drink alcohol (on Sundays) but doesn’t allow you to go to a store to buy it.”

The law, though, has been slowly eroding. Not only can Hoosiers buy a Sunday drink at a restaurant, sports contest or community event, they also can take home growlers from breweries and wine from wineries — rights lawmakers have granted in the name of promoting tourism.

Some religious and mental health groups don’t want the restrictions loosened any more. But some Hoosiers want the convenience to be able to stock up on Sunday.

“It’s a wasted opportunity, particularly in a sports town like ours, to stop someone from picking up a sixer to share with their buddies,” said Troy Brownfield, 39, Plainfield. “I think it’s an outmoded moral judgment.”

Rooted in religious objections

The Sunday sales ban began as a “blue law” when Prohibition ended 80 years ago, aimed at promoting religious standards. Now the discussion has shifted more toward economics and public policy.

The lobbyists for grocery stores, packaged liquor stores and public health already are lining up for battle at the Statehouse.

The Indiana Retail Council, which represents grocery stores, is pushing for Indiana to allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays.

After all, following Saturday, that’s the second busiest shopping day of the week. The group has been pushing for a change for years.

“People are time-starved today,” said President Grant Monahan. “When they go to the grocery store to shop on Sunday, they want to do all of their family grocery shopping at that time. And that could include picking up a case of beer or a bottle of wine.”

He estimates the state loses $9 million annually in sales and excise tax revenues from people who drive to neighboring states on Sunday to buy package liquor, beer and wine. And, he said, businesses lose about $129 million in sales.

Packaged liquor stores object

Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State, studied the issue in 2006 and found little reason to think overall sales would be boosted by lifting the Sunday ban.

But he thinks it would shift the marketplace from packaged liquor stores to grocery stores.

In other states, he said, allowing grocery stores to sell alcohol has led to an average 8 percent to 10 percent reduction in the number of liquor stores. Adding in Sunday sales would push the loss to 25 percent.

“This would shift the market from the local retailer — and these are usually small chains of five to six stores,” he said.

Raymond Cox owns a chain of liquor stores called Elite Beverages in Lawrence, McCordsville, Cumberland and Fortville. He said grocery stores would drive him out of business if they could sell on Sundays.

“It’s really a big guy, little guy issue.”

Cox said the fate of packaged liquor stores should matter to customers, too, because they add variety to the market. Packaged stores often carry brands and flavors that large chains don’t. That’s also where you’ll usually find the greatest mix of Indiana’s emerging craft brew market.

“Not only would you lose local businesses,” he said, “you’d lose your ability to pick and choose. If you want selection, then we’re the specialty in adult beverages.”

The Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers lobby has been telling lawmakers if they lift Sunday restrictions the liquor stores it represents — such as Cox’s small chain — soon would be hanging out-of-business signs.

John Livengood, president of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, estimates that a change in Sunday sales would close 250 of the liquor stores he represents and put 1,000 people out of work.

“Grocery stores and big-box stores already have a big share of the market,” Livengood said, “and now they want it all.”

Social concerns remain

The argument may have shifted toward economics, but religion and social concerns remain part of the conversation.

Boots said lawmakers’ personal beliefs play a role.

“There is always religious opposition to alcohol consumption, period,” he said.

The Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church has no formal plans to lobby against this legislation. Still, Dan Gangler, director of communication for the Indiana conference, said the church opposes expanding Sunday sales on principle.

“Historically, the United Methodist Church supports abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. In this particular instance, with the expansion of alcohol, we would oppose any provision that would allow the increase of consumption of alcoholic beverages. Looking at Sunday use of alcohol or Sunday sales of alcohol, we would oppose it.”

Mental Health America of Indiana has emerged as the more persistent social lobby against expanding sales.

Lori Hutcheson, the organization’s vice president of policy and programs, thinks Sunday sales would provide greater opportunity for kids to buy alcohol illegally. She said 25 percent of Hoosiers ages 12 to 20 drink alcohol.

After all, Indiana’s grocery stores face fewer regulations. Packaged liquor stores allow only people over 21 to enter, and store clerks must be over 21 with a special license to sell alcohol.

But in grocery stores, mom and dad can shop with their children. And clerks don’t have to be 21 or have a permit to sell alcohol.

“Since when do we make public policy by consumer convenience?” Hutcheson asked. “If we change the law, alcohol will be as convenient to buy as any other product. I don’t think we really want that.”

Two chances

Bills have been filed in both the Indiana House and the Indiana Senate to lift restrictions.

Boots is leading the effort in the Senate, as is Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, in the House. Despite the opposition, Eberhart says Indiana’s law seems out of date.

“You scratch your head when you start to think about it,” Eberhart said. “We need to get to the 21st century, and we need to move passed this.”

Chairmen of the House and Senate public policy committees will determine whether the bills receive a public hearing.

House Chairman Bill Davis, R-Portland, declined to comment on the legislation. Senate Chairman Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, said he has been studying the issue and thinks fellow legislators would be more open to minor changes than a wholesale repeal.

Restrictions were lifted on Sunday sales at breweries, with his help.

“I think when you are dealing with alcohol matters, you are better off dealing with it in pieces,” Alting said.

Each state regulates alcohol differently, he noted, and it’s difficult to find the right balance. Some states allow cities or counties to make their own rules. Some states act as the distributor of alcohol.

Indiana’s neighbors — Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan — all allow some level of sales on Sundays.

While Connecticut gained national attention for easing its Sunday restrictions, grocery stores there can sell only beer and wine. Because Hoosiers, though, can also by hard liquor at grocery stores, the packaged liquor store lobby argues the impact of allowing Sunday sales here would be greater.

Alting said the wide-ranging differences in the 50 states’ laws make comparisons dicey.

“It’s the most hodgepodge legislation,” Alting said.

Some Hoosiers, including Brownfield, are just tired of the inconvenience caused by the Sunday sales restrictions. He wants to buy a six-pack while he’s shopping on Sunday, and he doesn’t understand what all of the fuss is about.

“Most of the reasons against allowing alcohol sales on Sundays are rooted in an argument that represents that person’s own interest group,” he said. “The argument to keep the law as is will always be based on the impassioned individual rather than the logical argument.”

Source: http://www.jconline.com/article/20130120/NEWS02/301200023/Sunday-liquor-sales-battle-brewing-Indiana