Kansas Senate panel to consider expanding liquor licenses
Topeka With thousands of dollars in campaign contributions at stake in the 2016 election cycle, GOP legislators are weighing the risks of acting on a fiercely lobbied issue: allowing supermarkets to sell liquor.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, told the GOP caucus Wednesday that the chamber needs to at least debate the bill, which would allow counties to decide via ballot measure whether big-box retailers should be allowed to sell liquor, wine and full-strength beer.
"I think that we need to run it up a flag pole, get it done. I mean, otherwise, we do have — it depends on what you want to deal with — but we could have an onslaught of lobbyists coming in and out of offices," Bruce said.
Supporters of the move, which include chains such as Iowa-based Hy-Vee, Oklahoma-based QuikTrip and Dillon's, a subsidiary of Kroger headquartered in Cincinnati, have made significant campaign contributions to state legislators over the past several years and had their case made by lobbying organization UnCork Kansas. They argue wider alcohol sales would make the market freer and be more convenient for consumers.
But opponents say it would drive profits away from the state's roughly 750 individually owned liquor stores and put that money in the hands of out-of-state corporations. It also could lead to a patchwork of regulations, according to Kansas Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association lobbyist Tuck Duncan, which would be a "logistical nightmare" for companies producing and distributing both strong and light beer.
The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday to discuss the issue. Committee chairman Republican Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, from Grinnell, said he opposed it and he doubted whether it would be endorsed by the panel, but he was willing to give it "a fair hearing." A House committee approved a bill in February that would allow larger retailers to sell alcohol starting in 2018.
Similar bills have stalled at the committee stage in each of the past four years.
The wholesalers association and individual liquor stores also have been major campaign contributors, with the association spending nearly $4,000 on dinner meetings with state lawmakers in January and February, according to ethics commission disclosures.
UnCork Kansas spent about $3,000 on such meetings, according to the disclosure documents. Its chairman, David Dillon, said in an emailed statement that current laws restrict the freedoms of Kansas consumers.
Republican Sen. Jeff Longbine from Emporia told the caucus that he was concerned with letting the issue go undiscussed in the Senate, "because I think a lot of us have received support from one side or the other or both."
But a vote would only expose the GOP's 32 senators to ire ahead of 2016, when all senators are up for re-election, Topeka Republican Sen. Vicki Schmidt said.
"Why are we surrendering to this position? Because if the House isn't going to pass it anyway it's a futile debate but you've now put us on the line," Schmidt said Wednesday.
House Speaker Ray Merrick said in an emailed statement that he's waiting for the Senate to act before putting it to a floor debate.
"I think it needs to be addressed this year though, and there is still time to find a compromise before the end of session," he said.
Schmidt said that even if the bill doesn't pass, the controversy surrounding the issue wouldn't be dampened.
"It just doesn't end, a lot of people make a lot of money off of lobbying on this bill," she said.