Liquor stores owners bruised by second vote on grocery store wine bill, prepare for one last fight

by Wesley Brown ( 509 views 

One day after a bruising, rules-bending fight on the House floor, opponents of legislation that would allow Arkansas stores to sell a wider selection of wines are ramping up for one last attempt to halt the legislation before it becomes law.

On Wednesday, the Arkansas House approved an amended Senate Bill 284 and re-referred it back to the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. The circuitous route to the Senate panel began last week after the House Rules Committee advanced a bill to the full body that included a six-page amendment.

Opponents of SB284, who were celebrating on Monday after the bill was defeated, are now angrily striking out at lawmakers after the legislation was brought back up two days later and the sponsors found a few extra votes to get it approved. That left dozens of angry liquor store owners saying the legislative process had let them down. Many are now circulating letters and emails warning that many of them will go out of business once Wal-Mart and other grocery store operators are allowed to sell two of its three main products, which include beer, wine and liquor.

Tom Smith, owner of Spirits Liquor in Little Rock, said he didn’t understand the process and now believes some lawmakers were beholden to Wal-Mart and other lobbyists behind the drafting of SB284.

“It seems now if you lose, you get a second chance as long as you can get someone on the losing side to make a motion to reconsider,” Smith said. “We heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of Wal-Mart ‘paid’ pressure over the last couple of days to get these lawmakers to switch their vote.”

The original bill by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, would have enabled grocery stores to obtain permits to sell wines of all types in local grocery stores. Grocery store chains operating in Arkansas, such as Walmart U.S., Kroger’s, Edwards Food Giant and Brookshire’s, now can only sell Arkansas and other small farm wines that produce less than 250,000 gallons of wine a year.

That earlier Senate bill also spelled out potential revenue the state would generate from increased wine sales. For example, a grocery store seeking a wine permit would pay $1,000 for building space of less than 35,001 square feet. Larger stores with space over 75,000 square feet would pay $5,000 for wine permits. That version also allowed fees from the wine permits to be equally divided between the “Arkansas Wine Grant” program and the Tourism Development Trust Fund, which would be designated to the Department of Parks and Tourism to promote the state’s wine industry.

The newly negotiated amended bill adds eight additional provisions to the engrossed bill. Those new provisions include allowing liquor store owners to sell consumable and edible products that complement alcoholic beverages, giving incentives to Arkansas-bonded wineries operating in state more than five years, preventing dry counties from getting into the wine business, and adding language that grocery stores with a wine permit cannot derive more than 20% of their gross sales from the sale of alcoholic beverages.

On Monday, legislators debated how best to allow the liquor industry to participate in a free market environment. Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, said the bill would allow more individual choice and warned that if legislators do not pass the bill, voters would initiate more liberal alcohol laws as they did with the Medical Marijuana Amendment, and as Oklahoma voters did allowing beer and wine in grocery stores.

“The times are changing, and we have to adapt to the market,” Capp said. “Any business that assumes that this is going to continue long-term has a flaw in their business plan.”

Despite strong backing from Wal-Mart and a coalition of small winery owners and state-line liquor stores, Hester’s bill fell three votes short of passing the House, 48-34, with 12 voting present and six not voting. Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who voted no, served notice that he would move to reconsider the vote. On Wednesday, with dozens of liquor store owners in the House gallery carrying “Vote No on SB284” signs and wearing similar T-shirts, the House reconsidered after a floor motion by Leding was approved to bring it up again.

After making the motion, Leding said he wanted to allow everyone in the House to get an opportunity to vote on the issue.

“This probably isn’t the most important issue that a lot of us have come down here to deal with, we come here to address hunger, education and that kind of thing, but it is an important issue,” said the Fayetteville lawmaker. “We’ve got small business owners across the state invested in this …, and we want everyone down here to get a chance to vote on this.”

But Republican lawmakers Jana Della Rosa of Rogers and Jim Hendren of Gravette cautioned fellow House members from setting the precedent of bringing defeated measures back to the floor.

“I want you to think very carefully about this one. We’ve already had our debate on this …, so I would ask that you not vote for this,” Della Rosa said. “The purpose for a motion of reconsideration … is not meant to be used as a second chance so that the first time around you can whip the vote, and then in the meantime you can turn around and lean on people and come back and do it again.”

Still, Leding’s motion was approved by 48-34, with six members not voting and 12 present. Immediately afterward, the bill was approved by a vote of 53-34. Eight members did not participate and four voted present.

On Thursday, Smith and some of the other liquor store owners said there may be “some sympathies” in the Senate to now defeat SB284 after the unusual events in the House.

Meanwhile, opponents of another contentious bill that was defeated in the House on Wednesday are hoping they don’t suffer the same fate as the liquor store owners. Students and administrators from Crowley Ridge Technical Institute were at the Capitol on Thursday, saying they had heard that lawmakers were going to run HB1543 again.

That bill was defeated by a vote of 49-21, with 30 members not voting on the legislation. Like Leding, Rep. Danny Watson, R-Hope, served notice after the vote he would bring the legislation back at a later date. Watson also voted no on the measure that is a part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s efficiency efforts to streamline state government.