Bill to close cold-beer sales loophole advanced by Senate panel

A legal loophole used by an Indiana convenience store chain to sell cold beer would be snapped shut under a proposal that was advanced Wednesday by an Indiana Senate committee.

The measure was passed on an 8-1 vote by the Senate Public Policy Committee. A House committee also took up a similar proposal that is expected to come up for a vote next week.

Convenience stores in the state are able to sell warm beer or cold wine, but the sale of cold beer for carryout long has been reserved for Indiana's liquor stores, a right the industry's lobbyists have fought to protect for years.

Indiana-based convenience store chain Ricker's bypassed that restriction by obtaining a separate liquor license typically reserved for restaurants after it added seating and began offering made-to-order burritos and other Tex-Mex food at two locations.

That irritated Republican legislative leaders who found out about the store's cold-beer sales last week. They say those sales go against the spirit of the existing state law.

Some of the harshest criticism came from Sen. Ron Alting, the Republican chairman of the Senate policy committee, who verbally sparred with supporters of the store's cold beer sales during one of Wednesday's hearings.

"Just a few months ago, we decided we would really like the ability to have cold beer for our patrons," said Jay Ricker, who is the head of the company. "I didn't expect the kind of blowback we got."

Ricker's acquired the permits allowing for cold beer sales for two of its 56 locations in February. A Columbus location opened and began serving alcohol under the new license March 1, while a Sheridan location began its cold beer sales last week.

Almost immediately, the liquor lobby alerted lawmakers, Ricker said.

Patrick Tamm, CEO of Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, said Ricker's "clearly is flouting the law."

"Do you want thousands of revamped permits selling both hard liquor and cold beer?" he told lawmakers. Others opposed to the store's cold-beer sales raised the possibility that it could lead to a jump in minors getting their hands on alcohol if employees lack proper training to spot fake IDs.

Ricker and Scot Imus of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association say they see the move to sell cold beer as a way of evolving to meet consumer's needs and survive in changing times.

Declining revenue from cigarettes and gasoline left Ricker looking for an additional source of income, he said.

But Ricker is frustrated by the Legislature's response in a state that touts itself as business-friendly.

"What really bothers me … is I have permits already and have made tens of thousands of dollars in investments, in training," Ricker told lawmakers. "You want to take those licenses away from me? Our patrons are happy. "

Opponents to the lawmakers' proposal argue the change would come with unintended consequences because it requires a restaurant liquor license holder to receive 90 percent of gross retail income from food and beverage sales. They argue that change would also affect golf courses, movie theaters and bowling alleys that sell cold beer.

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