EDITORIAL: Liquor stand-off on tap for 2018

April 29, 2017

The Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly did its job this year, passing a two-year-state budget, providing a realistic path forward for education and road funding, and avoiding the social wars we came to expect while Mike Pence was governor. But a brushfire over the sale of cold beer at two Ricker’s convenience stores highlighted a bad habit our elected representatives should kick.

Too often, they ignore what’s in the best interests of consumers. It’s a regrettable vice likely to be on full display next year if legislators honor their promise to tackle a full overhaul of Indiana’s alcohol laws in 2018.

The state’s antiquated liquor laws have resisted all past attempts at alteration, but the plight of Ricker’s frames the issue in a compelling way.

The convenience store chain installed seating and began serving burritos in two of its stores, winning classification as a restaurant and sidestepping the state law prohibiting convenience stores from selling cold beer. That’s a right long reserved for liquor stores only.

The outrage among lawmakers provoked by Ricker’s creativity exposed the Legislature’s misplaced priorities. Rather than consider what’s best for consumers, lawmakers went all in to protect liquor stores. They passed a law that would allow Ricker’s to renew its license in 2018 only if 60 percent of its alcohol sales are for on-site drinking. The bill, which at press time awaited Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature, sets a standard no convenience store could meet.

We’re not unsympathetic to the wishes of liquor stores, many of which are mom-and-pop businesses. Pressuring legislators to preserve their monopoly on carry-out cold beer sales helps them stave off competition from chains much bigger than Ricker’s.

But should the Legislature be in the business of picking business winners and losers?

Our liquor laws interfere with competition and unnecessarily inconvenience the public.

Consumers in most states can buy cold beer in convenience stores and gas stations, and they can buy alcohol on Sundays. Why can’t they here? The only plausible reason is legislators’ allegiance to liquor stores.

Liquor stores aren’t the only businesses that seek and receive legislative cover. Car dealers, for instance, pushed through a bill this session prohibiting car manufacturers from selling directly to the public. The law, a response to Tesla, the high-end brand that operates its own showrooms, allows Tesla to remain but prohibits incursions by other manufacturers. And, of course, car dealers continue to benefit from Indiana’s long-standing and difficult-to-justify prohibition on Sunday car sales. Consumers, meanwhile, have no choice but to work around it.

Whether the product is cars or cocktails, state government shouldn’t so blatantly disregard what the public wants. Or interfere in the ability of businesses to meet consumer demand.•


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