Grocery-store wine bill short three House votes
Speaker urged passage; revote likely
A bill to allow grocery stores to sell whatever brands of wine they want failed to pass the House on Monday despite a rare speech in support of the measure by the House speaker.
Senate Bill 284, by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, was supported by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co. but opposed by many liquor store owners, who said the bill would harm their businesses. The bill failed 48-34, with 51 votes needed for passage, but a move was made to reconsider the bill later.
Grocery stores now are allowed only to stock wine from small wineries, which limits their selection and
sales. But the law benefits some of those small wineries, which receive exclusive exposure in supermarkets, and it also benefits liquor stores, which sell wines from nationally and internationally renowned brands that grocery stores can’t stock.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, urged members to vote in favor of the measure because it was as close to a win-win as
various sides could achieve in moving toward freer markets.
“There are winners and losers in about everything that we do,” he said. “Our goal is to minimize the collateral issues as much as humanly possible.”
SB284 was in part the product of negotiations involving the Arkansas Beverage Retailers Association, Wal- Mart and some Altus-area wineries.
Under the bill, half the grocery-store wine permit fees would be paid to Arkansas wine producers and half would go toward a wine tourism facility in Franklin County.
But some beverage retailers, upset about what they have called a backdoor agreement, formed their own association to oppose the bill: the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas.
Members of this group said some liquor stores agreed not to oppose the legislation if the grocery stores wouldn’t participate in local- option efforts, or elections on whether a county is wet or dry in regard to alcohol sales.
Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, the House sponsor of SB284, acknowledged that agreement in a meeting last week.
And he said Monday that there were other concessions to the liquor stores. Wal-Mart, Kroger and other chain stores would only be allowed to place orders at the store level. They would be banned from ordering in bulk at the corporate level to drive down prices, Eubanks said.
But liquor store owners had argued that they were still at a disadvantage. Under state law, they have to be at least 1,000 feet from a church or school, for example.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, voted against the bill.
“We have kept [ liquor stores] in a closed- market atmosphere and we are suddenly going to expose them to a free-market atmosphere, with the biggest giant there is in free market coming after them,” she said.
“They will die, not because they’ve chosen a poor business model, not because they’ve refused to compete in a free market, but because we have prohibited them from doing so. We have set them up to fail.”
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said she would vote against it because of a wave of constituent input. She said she had received more calls on SB284 than on issues such as health care, foster families and abortion.
But Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, who worked on the legislation, told lawmakers they should take the deal they had in front of them.
“We have the option here today of accepting a deal that takes alcohol off the table for eight years,” she said. “There is nothing that would prevent a statewide initiative for alcohol being placed on the ballot that has none of the compromise worked out here today.”
It wouldn’t be hard for a supporter to do so, she said, adding that paid signature gatherers can whip up 67,000 signatures in short order.
After the bill failed to pass, Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, served notice that he will make a motion to reconsider the vote within two days.
Leding said he’s a firm no on the bill. Eubanks asked him to make the motion, which Leding said he did “strictly out of courtesy.”
Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, speaks Monday against Senate Bill 284, which would allow grocery stores to sell all brands of wine. The bill failed to gain approval in the House.
Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, watches from behind the well as opposition mounts to Senate Bill 284, which he ran in the house, on Monday.