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Debate over liquor sales in grocery stores draws another round

February 27, 2017 Updated: February 27, 2017 at 3:33 pm
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In this June 9, 2016 photo, customers shop for beer at Liquor Mart in Boulder, Colo. On June 10, Colorado’s governor 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. The bill signed Friday by Gov. John Hickenlooper starts a 20-year phase-in for grocers to acquire liquor licenses, sometimes by paying for those held by neighboring liquor stores. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

A debate over a measure framed as a "cleanup" of full-strength alcohol sales in supermarkets devolved Monday into a referendum on big-box versus small retailers.

Democrats were at odds with each other over whether the measure from Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, would result in "wiping out" small liquor stores.

"What are we doing to our small businesses?" Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, asked Williams and supporters of the bill.

Senate Bill 143 would extend liquor licenses to stores with a pharmacy on premise regardless of the ownership of the pharmacy license. The measure addresses a problem some stores have experienced: selling off a pharmacy facility but continuing to run a pharmacy on premises.

Lawmakers allowed full-strength alcohol sales to be phased in over 20 years. Grocery stores are allowed to gradually purchase 20 licenses. After the program is phased in, stores are permitted to obtain unlimited licenses. Grocery store sales aren't expected to begin until 2019.

But after a retailer identified the problem with liquor licenses attached to drugstore licenses, as well as some other smaller issues, Williams agreed to run "technical" changes. She learned quickly that the measure would not be viewed as a simple "cleanup."

Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, ran amendments looking to exclude big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target from being able to participate in expanded liquor sales.

"I'm concerned that this bill will lead to a further decline in small liquor store businesses and that this will increase access to full alcohol in many communities of poverty," Aguilar said, arguing that the grand compromise last year was never meant to include major retailers.

But Williams said the negotiations last year included all stakeholders, including large retailers like Wal-Mart and Target and small liquor stores as well. She pointed out that her bill would hold true to the agreed upon compromise last year of phasing in the expansion.

"The only reason I chose to be a sponsor of this bill is to ensure that we were protecting the little guys," Williams said.

The compromise last year also allowed retail liquor stores to sell non-alcohol products, limited to 20 percent of sales revenue.

Critics of the "cleanup" bill this year pushed an amendment that would clarify that the 20 percent cap is limited to food. The move would allow small liquor-licensed drugstores to sell additional products before hitting the cap. The amendment first failed during initial floor debate, but was then resurrected.

In pushing for the amendment, Fields asked colleagues, "Now we want to exclude some of our small independent stores from selling ice and paper products?"

The debate in the Senate Monday reflects that discussions last year may have opened the door to a renewed push to expand the state's liquor laws.

Stores like Natural Grocers felt it was left out of last year's changes because it does not operate pharmacies out of its Colorado-based stores and it does not qualify for a retail liquor store license.

When the bill was in committee, an amendment was offered that would have allowed those stores to sell beer and wine. But that effort failed.

Williams stressed that lawmakers should reject any effort to expand on the compromise last year. She said she has industry support this year, just as the compromise had last year.

"There was not one business that was singled out," Williams said. "We had consensus."

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