Members of a panel looking at the potential sale of wine and high-point beer in grocery and convenience stores abruptly ended their task Thursday by voting to hold no more meetings.
The decision was made after nearly two hours of sometimes heated discussion on the issue. The action means the task force, which was created earlier this year in a measure passed by the Legislature and was made up of members mostly opposed to changing the alcohol laws, will not have a recommendation on the proposal.
Several members said it became apparent after two meetings that both sides could not reach an agreement. Instead of continuing to meet and discuss the issue, they decided to disband.
“There's a lot of data and we're not going to recommend one way or the other which way we're going,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the Joint Task Force on the Sale of Wine and Beer in Grocery Stores.
Jolley, R-Edmond, said the issue is not going to go away. He said legislation could be pursued next session, or there may be an attempt to start an initiative petition drive to change the constitution to allow wine and strong-beer sales in grocery and convenience stores.
“What should not come out of this is any type of a conclusion that the change is not wanted by anybody,” Jolley said. “What the task force said was we can't agree on what the changes should be.”
Thirty-four states have laws that allow wine and strong-beer sales in grocery stores.
Oklahoma's law allows only low-point beer to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. Retail sales of strong beer or wine must occur in liquor stores, where products cannot be refrigerated.
The proposal to allow the sales in grocery and convenience stores is supported by some business and consumer groups who say Oklahoma's alcohol laws are antiquated. Opponents are mostly state alcohol retailers and distributors who say their business models are dependent on the existing state alcohol laws targeted for change.
Both sides quoted polls during Thursday's meeting, with one showing a majority of those asked supported changing the liquor laws to allow strong-beer and wine sales in grocery and convenience stores and another showing most opposed it.
Several bills that were filed this past session were put on hold until the task force finished its work. Legislation setting up the task force states that Jolley report why the panel failed to reach an agreement on a recommendation.
Jeff Reasor, chief executive officer of Reasor's Foods and a task force member, said he wasn't surprised that the task force abruptly folded.
“The deck was a little bit stacked by the members that were on there,” he said. “It was stacked by a lot of people who were against change. ... They just had their heels dug in and it's a shame.”
The task force's end seemed to have caught Jolley by surprise. He was asking members when to have the next meeting when Sen. Jonathan Nichols, a task force member, made the motion for the task force to disband.
“That issue quickly became a public safety issue to me,” said Nichols, R-Norman. “I'm not going to support increasing teenagers' access to alcohol.
“If we allow these products in our grocery stores, we're going to increase alcohol-related violent crimes,” he said. “We're going to increase children's access to alcohol. I'm not going to support that.”
Jolley said he is uncertain if he will pursue legislation to try to change the state's alcohol laws.
Oklahoma's beverage alcohol industry was created in 1959 and is part of the state constitution. John Woods, president of the Norman Chamber of Commerce and a task force member, said changing the alcohol laws would cover four or five sections and each would require a separate state question.
“I'm going to look and see how simple can we make this,” Jolley said. “I'm not in a rush to do something one way or the other.
“I don't know if it comes back next session, but this issue is not dying,” he said. “This issue will be revisited through the Legislature in the future. And if the Legislature doesn't act swiftly enough, I fully expect to see people try to avail themselves of the initiative petition process because there are too many people who want this changed.”
Mike Thornbrugh, spokesman for Tulsa-based QuikTrip, told task force members the company isn't joining the state's convenience store trade group in opposing a change. He said the focus should be on consumer choice, even if allowing liquor stores to sell cold beer might reduce the company's market share.
“It's not about protecting me, it's not about protecting somebody else,” he said. “It is giving the adult consumer the choice — would you like to purchase it here or there? They'll make their minds up. Hopefully they'll choose us.
“What it really comes down to is you have a lot of people who are used to doing business a certain way and they don't want to change,” he said.
J.P. Richard, a task force member and president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, said any changes in the state's alcohol law should be gradual and over several years. Richard, owner of Cache Road Liquor and Wine in Lawton, estimated he would lose about 25 percent of his business to grocery stores.
“What do I get in return?” he asked. “Because you just don't lose the sale, you lose the customer.”
The task force, made up of 21 members including alcohol retailers and distributors, was created after Jolley filed legislation this past session that would have let voters decide whether to allow strong-beer and wine sales in state grocery and convenience stores. It was decided that before the matter could be brought up, discussions should be held with those affected by the change in the state's liquor laws. The task force was set up to study the issue and help draft a bill to be considered by the Legislature next year.
“Well, we've done that now,” Jolley said. “The results are clear that they can't agree. There are certain things some of them would want that others would oppose.”
It's not about protecting me, it's not about protecting somebody else. It is giving the adult consumer the choice — would you like to purchase it here or there? They'll make their minds up. Hopefully they'll choose us.”