Indiana legislators on Thursday abandoned a more lenient approach to resolving a controversy regarding a pair of Ricker’s convenience stores that are selling cold beer for carryout in favor of a stricter approach that will likely mean the stores lose their permits next year.
The Senate voted 40-8 to approve House Bill 1496, which would allow Ricker’s—which controversially but legally obtained restaurant permits that allows it to sell cold beer for carryout at the locations—to continue on until it is time to renew each store’s annual permit.
At that point, the store would have to comply with a provision that prohibits retailers from selling alcohol for carryout unless 60 percent of its income from alcohol comes from on-site consumption.
Meanwhile, the Indiana House passed on voting on Senate Bill 358, which would have made it possible for Ricker’s to get permits renewed next year but would have halted for the next two years the ability of the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission to hand out similar permits to grocery, convenience or drug stores.
The bill will go to conference committee where issues will continue to be worked out during the last weeks of the legislative session.
And both chambers’ Republican leaders, House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, said they voted to do a recodification and major revamp of the state’s alcohol code.
Generally, 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.
Ricker's bypassed that restriction by obtaining a separate permit typically reserved for restaurants after it added seating and began offering made-to-order burritos and other Tex-Mex food at two of its 50 locations. Lawmakers have said the cold beer sales go against the spirit of the existing state law.
Ricker's acquired the permits allowing for cold beer sales in February. A Columbus location began serving alcohol under the new license March 1, while a Sheridan location began its cold beer sales lin late March.
Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, said it wasn’t a sure thing that Ricker’s would be shut out under the 60 percent on-site consumption threshold.
“If they’re smart enough to have [figured out a way to sell cold carryout beer] for the first time in 40 years, they’ll be smart enough to meet that 60 percent,” Alting said.
Alting said the bill as written would not put anyone out of business.
But Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville called it a “terrible bill because we’re trying to fix a problem that does not exist.” He called the legislation a knee-jerk reaction.
Boots compared the Senate’s action on the Ricker’s permit to the vaping regulation debacle over the last two years.
“Remember what we did last year when we tried to fix the vaping issue?” Boots said. “We caused a lot of unintended consequences. We put a lot of people [out of] business. We destroyed the vaping industry.”
Long said the comparison to the vaping situation was unfair because alcohol has been heavily regulated since prohibition.
He also said that by allowing Ricker’s to continue, it was creating an unfair playing field for the package liquor industry, which pays substantially more for liquor store permits than Ricker’s paid for its restaurant permits.
Bosma said his caucus decided to pass on the bill because members couldn’t come to an agreement.
“The path forward will be to concentrate on HB 1496 to try to treat correctly every permit holder in the state,” Bosma said.
Bosma said the issue with Ricker’s having a restaurant permit that allows it to sell carryout alcohol is that it also allows them to sell hard liquor.
“I really don’t have a problem with cold beer,” Bosma said. “We have to form a consensus over the next couple of weeks or there’s a potential for 5,000 new hard alcohol outlets ... throughout our state. For some that would be a great idea. I presume, once this gets into the hands of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking and some of the faith communities, once they figure out what this is, people will hear something different at home.”
Meanwhile, Ricker’s Chairman Jay Ricker called the House’s decision to pass on its bill “inexplicable” because it went against “overwhelming public outcry for fairness and transparency.”
“The will of the people was thwarted today, and it is incumbent upon the leadership of the General Assembly to explain why,” Ricker said in a statement. “It is no exaggeration to say that every single person who has spoken to me about this issue has expressed complete and utter dismay at how Ricker’s and other restaurants have been treated during this legislative session.”
Bosma said the public doesn’t always fully understand the complex issues regarding alcohol regulation.
“We aren’t here to do just the will of what people think might ought to be a good idea,” Bosma said. “We’re here to protect the public, to serve as their representatives, to dive deeply in these issues, and to try to do what’s best for all people in the state of Indiana.”