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News & Press: Government Affairs

Restrictions on Sunday Alcohol Sales

Wednesday, September 30, 2015  
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<strong>Indiana's Sunday Sales Bill Moves with Amendments Requiring Other Retailers to Separate Hard Liquor; Amendment Forces Big Box Retailers to Invest in Alcohol Product Controls</strong>

A bill allowing Sunday alcohol sales is moving in the Indiana General Assembly, with a vote of 10-2 approval out of the House Public Policy Committee on Wednesday (February 11, 2015). But after nearly three hours of discussion, there are plenty of details left to be hammered out for a meaningful and sound public policy moving forward.

Rep. Tom Dermody, who is the author of HB 1624, has acknowledged that while the time may have come for Sunday sales, alcohol remains a product that must be controlled under stringent circumstances.

Big Box retailers, as reported by media, have been incensed by the product controls that were amended successfully into the bill on Wednesday, including provisions that they, too, must have clerks who are at least 21 years of age, licensed and trained.

But it was segregation, or separation of product, that received the most attention from all sides.

IABR supports moving hard liquor behind the counter or in separated areas - a control initiative that was in place decades ago, but willfully ignored by retailers such as the Meijer chain. The twists and turns of deregulation over the decades have taken their toll on the placement of alcohol which lands just about anywhere in larger retail chains, including at check-out counters.

IABR CEO Patrick Tamm showed various photos submitted by concerned consumers and retailers around the state that showed the blatant disregard for any common sense separation policy. But Rep. Terri Austin worried that Chardonnay pairings for fish, for example, could then not be placed near her grocery's frozen fish counter.

Dermody said in his opening remarks that "alcohol is a controlled substance, not a free market product. I'd ask you to treat it as such."

Rep. Sean Eberhart said he was also struggling with the notion of children being exposed to alcohol as a justification for separation because "kids are constantly exposed."  Austin also called it "merchandising restraint."

Seventeen people signed up to testify, but only a few were allowed to give lengthy presentations - including Kroger's John Elliott, who presented a video that had been taped in a single day to show off the company's self-serve checkout security. Elliott stuck to his key message that consumers are shopping across state lines, but provided only minimal estimated data by comparing customer loyalty card tracking from a Kroger store in Fort Wayne to Defiance, Ohio, for Sunday sales shopping.

Whopping numbers were provided by Big Box retailers claiming amounts well into the millions for changing stores to meet the demands of the amended bill - anywhere from $50 to $100 million statewide. Some lawmakers said they found those numbers difficult to believe, especially from the likes of Walmart.

While the state's Legislative Services Agency has repeatedly said Sunday sales will bring in no additional revenue by expanding sales from six to seven days a week, Elliott said: "We believe LSA is wrong." LSA in an independent and non-partisan branch of Indiana government.

Many attempts were made by larger retailers to denigrate the integrity of package stores by raising compliance data, but that was also shot down by Rep. Ben Smaltz. He said the numbers cited by Big Box retailers "just don't jive" with information he had received from the Indiana Alcohol &amp; Tobacco Commission.

IABR's Patrick Tamm also pointed out that a federal judge didn't buy the argument either after issuing a ruling in a federal case over the state's cold beer statute.

Federal Judge Richard Young in his ruling on summary judgment to dismiss all counts in a challenge to Indiana's cold beer law noted that comparing statistics was "problematic," "irrelevant," and "misplaced." Young also noted that package stores are subject to much stricter regulations than retailers who are suing to roll back the state's cold beer regulations. As a result of those regulations, it costs package stores "far more" to enter the marketplace, the judge noted.

Lisa Hutcheson, with the Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, shot down the notion that a majority of Hoosiers want expanded Sunday sales as proponents keep claiming. Citing the proponents' alleged petition signatures of 50,000 people (oddly the exact same number they claimed in prior years under different "consumer" campaigns), Hutcheson said the figure is a tiny percentage of the state's overall population.

Many people cited statistics on societal harm for an unregulated product, including Hutcheson, a veteran's group, Baptist ministers, community activists, and package store owners, but those individuals were limited to only a few minutes each of testimony and many were cut short.

Dermody closed the lengthy hearing by reminding everyone that "Sunday sales is easy, but there's public policy here that's never been discussed before. Let's roll up our sleeves."

The bill moves next to the full House where it may be subject to additional amendments.

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