KEVIN LEININGER: It may require a miracle for Indiana’s liquor laws to put consumers first, no matter what the politicians say
As elder of the day, I arrived at church early to prepare the communion bread and wine for consecration by the pastor. When I unlocked the closet, though, there was not a single bottle on the shelf.
The day being Sunday and the state being Indiana, it would have done no good to drive to the nearest grocery or liquor store. So in desperation I visited my wife’s church a couple of blocks away and, after a little friendly ribbing (I think Catholics are still a little touchy about Martin Luther nailing stuff to one of their doors 500 years ago), returned with a couple bottles of sacramental wine.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill this week repealing the Prohibition-era ban on Sunday carryout liquor sales, and I wish I could say the change will ensure that future examples of Lutheran-Catholic ecumenism are based on more than a last-minute need for booze. But if we run out of wine again this Sunday, nothing will have changed despite the self-serving blather spouted by politicians this week.
“It’s all about the consumer. There is no need any longer to make a run for the border,” Holcomb said when he signed the bill that passed by a 39-10 vote in the Senate and an 82-10 margin the in the house. The bill is indeed a step in the right direction, but how does limiting Sunday sales to a noon-8 p.m. window and various other arcane liquor regulations benefit consumers?
That’s a purely rhetorical question, because as the Indianapolis Star noted this week, the Sunday liquor ban may have had religious origins but was kept in place mostly by economics and politics. “The biggest roadblock had been the liquor store industry, which sought to protect its market share from groceries, pharmacies and big-box stores,” the Star suggested.
The Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers acquiesced this year, however, in exchange for retention of laws give liquor stores a virtual monopoly on cold carry-out beer. All of which means Indiana is now the 41st state to allow Sunday liquor sales — and the only state that regulates beer sales by temperature.
All for the consumers? According to 2017 Ball State University poll, 58 percent of Hoosiers support Sunday carryout sales, but even more — 61 percent — think convenience and grocery stores should be allowed to sell cold beer.
Three years ago, 21st Amendment Wine & Spirits CEO Jim James wrote a newspaper column lambasting Indiana’s “grossly unfair” liquor laws. “Over the years,” he wrote, our competitors have been able to convince the Legislature to ease rules and regulations to sell alcohol for the sake of ‘customer convenience.’ Meanwhile, the rules and regulations for small business owners like me have only become more rigid.”
James made a compelling case. His clerks must be at least 21; a grocery clerk can be 18 so long as a 21-year-old is present to ring up the alcohol. You have to be 21 to enter a liquor store; groceries have no age limit. Groceries can sell just about anything, Liquor stores “can sell ice and warm water, but not cold water; a warm can of Coke but not a cold one. And we certainly aren’t allowed to sell groceries.”
What’s more, liquor stores must operate in incorporated areas — groceries don’t.
So it’s perfectly understandable why, according to the Associated Press, liquor stores have spent at least $150,000 on lobbying and more than $750,000 on political contributions since 2010. Nor is it surprising a bill that would have allowed groceries to sell cold beer failed in a Senate committee by a 9-1 vote. A bill that would have expanded permissible liquor-sale hours (limited to 7 a.m.- 3 a.m. Monday through Saturday) also failed.
Politically speaking, the bill Holcomb signed this week could be considered a laudable compromise. In economic terms, it offers protection to disparate constituents that create jobs and pay taxes. “All about the consumer”? Not so much.
Old habits are hard to break, and Indiana has been in the habit of limiting Sunday alcohol sales one way or another from the time it became a state in 1816. But if our politicians aren’t willing to create a level playing field for everyone, they should at least have the courage to explain why instead of claiming to be altruists.
Because, if you find yourself on the way home from church Sunday and need to buy beer before that noon tip-off, you’ll still be out of luck despite this week’s hoopla.
Unless, of course, you can turn water — be it warm or cold — into wine.
This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.