Legislative leaders formally announced Thursday that they will form a study commission to look at ways to overhaul Indiana's antiquated and confounding alcohol laws.
Lawmakers announced 51 specific issues that will be given a closer look by committees during the summer and fall, including lead contamination, the placement of concentrated animal feeding operations and government regulation of short-term rental websites such as Airbnb. But the alcohol law study committee might generate the most public interest.
Many of Indiana's booze laws date back to prohibition, filling a thick book that governs everything from how alcohol can be advertised to which types of retailers are allowed to sell cold beer. The latter became a heated issue during this year's legislative session after lawmakers discovered that the owner of Ricker's convenience stores found a legal loophole and obtained permits allowing him to sell cold—and not just lukewarm—beer at two locations.
In the final days of session, Republicans who control the Statehouse pushed through a bill that will likely prevent Ricker's owner Jay Ricker from renewing his licenses in the future. But amid populist uproar, they also pledged to consider a complete overhaul and left open the possibility of eliminating the state's prohibition on Sunday alcohol sales.
Lawmakers said the two-year committee will study alcohol retail laws this year and other matters, including alcohol distribution, after the 2018 session.
"Let's deal with the most public topic of alcohol reform right off the bat," said Republican Senate leader David Long, of Fort Wayne. "I think the public probably wants that, as well, and we're reacting to that sentiment."
The state's entrenched liquor store industry, which has fought fiercely against changes that would affect its members' profits, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers' campaign funds over the years.
Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said they hope to limit their influence on the study committee, which will be comprised of lawmakers and "laypeople." To do so, they pledged to bar alcohol permit holders and alcohol industry lobbyists from serving on the commission. They also plan to appoint someone who is not a member of the General Assembly, where liquor interests have considerable influence, to serve as its chairman.
Still, nothing will prohibit lawmakers on the commission from receiving donations from alcohol interests.
"It has crossed my mind also as an issue. We didn't know exactly how to deal with that," Bosma said. "But legislators study items all the time that are of interest to the regulated community."
Bosma added that lawmakers need to be "mindful" of their "integrity."