The state Attorney General's office has approved ballot language aimed at eventually allowing the sale of wine in certain Oklahoma grocery stores.
Once the ballot language is published in three state newspapers, the group Oklahomans for Modern Laws will need only wait 10 days for any protests to be filed with the state Supreme Court.
“We've never been this close before,” said Brian Howe, the group's spokesman. “We've gotten close in the past, but every time something seems to happen to kind of derail us.”
The group is trying to get a state question on the ballot in November that would give Oklahoma's 15 largest counties the option of allowing certain grocery stores to sell wine. The group has roughly three months to collect more than 150,000 signatures.
Under current law, only liquor stores can sell wine and strong beer, neither of which can be refrigerated.
Oklahomans for Modern Laws initially sought to change laws that would allow the sale of wine and strong beer in certain convenience stores and grocery stores, but opposition from the wholesale liquor industry has been considerable, Howe said.
“Our research shows us this will pass,” he said.
“I think Oklahomans want to be able to buy the products they want, where they want. We just want to give them the opportunity to decide.”
And as his group has gotten closer to changing Oklahoma's liquor laws, Howe says support from some large national chains is a growing possibility.
“Some of those out-of-state companies are watching the situation and reviewing the ballot language, but we've been in contact with a number of them,” he said. “Obviously, some of these organic, high-end places like Whole Foods, this is something they want. This is something they have at their other stores. They've never tried to hide that.”
For the past six or so years, Oklahomans for Modern Laws has been funded exclusively by oil and gas investor Sean Campbell, who also is the group's chairman.
According to Oklahoma Ethics Commission records, Campbell has contributed nearly $400,000 to the campaign since 2006. In the past year, his contributions have totaled roughly $56,000.
Howe said Campbell is a friend of his who is independently wealthy.
“He's actually the one who started this thing,” he said. “But I think once he delved into this and realized all of the opposition out there, ... that's when he brought me in.”
But once the petition drive begins in earnest, it's likely additional money will be needed to pay for collecting the signatures.
“It's really a huge amount of effort,” Howe said. “It will end up being at least a $1 million project if it's ever completed.”
Howe said his group tried to go through the legislature to change the state's liquor laws, but those opportunities never panned out.
Roughly six months ago, a legislative task force formed to study the sale of strong beer and wine in certain convenience and grocery stores disbanded after holding just two meetings.
Liquor store owners say they are left out by the proposed changes.
“I have personally almost given up three times,” Howe said.
“But then something will happen. A story will show up online or in the paper, and we start going again.”