Indiana's distinction of having one of the last dry state fairs could end this year if legislation clears the House.
The Indiana State Fair is one of only two state fairs that forbid alcohol sales, even though sales are allowed at other events held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Approval from state legislators and Gov. Mike Pence would bring an end to a ban that started nearly seven decades ago when fair vendors ran out of plastic cups and visitors trashed the grounds with glass bottles.
The Indiana Senate passed a bill to lift the ban 33-13 last month, and the state House now has the measure. It cleared the second of its required three readings in the House on Monday.
"Hoosiers are a little bit slow to react, and frankly, we haven't seen a need to change," fair spokesman Andy Kotz said of why the ban has been in place for so long — since 1947. "But with the burgeoning [craft] beer and wine industries in the state, it's become too big to ignore."
Opponents of removing the ban worry about safety and tarnishing the fair's reputation. Cindy Hoye, executive director of the State Fair Commission, said during a committee hearing that people commenting on the fair's Facebook page say lifting the ban could "jeopardize the integrity" of the fair.
"There seems to be a lot of community folks who are opposed to it and want to preserve the sense of a family-safe environment at the State Fair," said Nancy Beals, a project coordinator with Drug Free Marion County. "We, of course, support that."
But dry fairs are a minority today in the country. Ohio was another holdout until the Ohio Expositions Commission in 2011 lifted a ban in place since the 1880s. New Mexico and New York passed legislation in 2009 lifting alcohol bans, and Minnesota passed a law in 2003 to allow fairgoers to sip wine on the grounds.
Even North Carolina — the only other state fair with an alcohol ban — is adopting more lenient policies.
The North Carolina Board of Agriculture and Consumer Service last year offered flexibility for fairgoers to sample wine and buy a bottle to bring home, department spokesman Brian Long said.
Still, many fairs have regulations to limit alcohol sales.
Beer gardens make drinking more discreet at the Kansas State Fair, general manager Denny Stoecklein said. Drinkers cannot leave a designated area with a glass still in hand.
In Minnesota, fairgoers can sip wine or gulp cold beer while roaming the grounds, said Jim Sinclair, deputy general manager of that state's fair. Sales stop at 11:30 p.m. in Minnesota and vendors must continue selling food for at least a half-hour after they serve their last brew, Sinclair said. The deadline gives fairgoers at least some time to sober up before heading home.
Indiana fair officials and lawmakers plan to keep alcohol in beer gardens or similar restricted sections to limit risk of underage drinking or rowdy behavior. Details about whether to stop sales at a certain time or to use wristbands are on hold pending lawmakers' decision, but fair spokesman Kotz said a more educational approach to teach fairgoers about local beer and wine is planned.
"We know our plan is unique with respect to how most other fairs sell beer and wine," he said. "We want a very controlled, safe, responsible environment where there also are educational opportunities in addition to sampling the product. It's quite a bit different from having a lot of beer stands."