By ELISE REUTER
KU Statehouse Wire Service
TOPEKA — Kansas legislators are discussing a bill that would allow grocery and convenience stores to sell beer, wine and spirits. After a similar bill was shot down in the Statehouse last year, legislators revised it to give local liquor stores a 10-year adjustment period to prepare for the shift in licenses.
House Bill 2556 would separate liquor retail licenses into three categories: Class A, for retailers who can only sell beer, Class B, for those selling both beer and wine, and Class C, for those who sell beer, wine and liquor. If the bill is passed, then all existing liquor stores licenses would be turned into Class C licenses, and the total number of Class C licenses would be frozen until 2024.
During this 10-year period, liquor store owners will be able to sell their Class C licenses to grocery and convenience store owners in the same county. In 2017, all stores would be able to obtain licenses to sell beer, and in 2020, they would be able to sell both beer and wine. Lawmakers hope that this gradual transition will give liquor store owners time to prepare to share the market with larger chains, such as Dillon’s or Walmart.
Liquor store owners would be able to sell their licenses to these chains, or sell other wares, such as groceries, in order to stay abreast of the competition.
“It’s easy to position this as a big-box issue, but it’s not,” said Jessica Lucas, with Uncork Kansas. “It’s as much about the viability of small grocers, whether they’re specialty stores, serving a niche population in Overland Park, or they are that singular grocery store in a rural Kansas county. Both need this law passed.”
Opponents of the bill disagreed, saying that liquor sales do not fall under the free market, as they are heavily regulated by the state.
“This is not really about the free market, but changing the way we market alcohol in our state,” said Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby. “It’s all about convenience.”
According to the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, there are currently 748 liquor stores in Kansas. Tuck Duncan, with the Kansas Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association estimated that this number could increase to anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 stores, if the bill passes. He said that as far as competition was concerned, the distinction between licenses was moot.
“We’re not selling beer, we’re not selling wine or spirits,” Duncan said. “We’re selling alcohol that happens to be contained within a brew or a vinted or a distilled product.”
With the addition of groceries and convenience stores, the bill stated that minors would be able to sell alcohol if they were supervised by another employee over the age of 21. Opponents of the bill questioned whether this would make alcohol more accessible to minors, especially if the beverages were available at a larger number of stores.
“Very rarely have I heard anything that would keep this retail establishment from providing alcohol to minors,” said Chris Williams, with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s gonna make this more difficult for law enforcement agencies.
At the hearing, many small-town grocers and liquor store owners did provide written testimonies in support of the bill. However, those opposing it filled the court room.
Jeff Breault, owner of R&J Discount Liquor in Wichita, said the bill might not affect businesses in larger cities as greatly, but could be devastating to liquor store owners in small towns.
“This is a job killer, not a job creator,” Breault said.