Voters will decide in November whether to make some of the most significant changes to Oklahoma’s alcohol laws in decades.
State Question 792 would eliminate restrictions on who can sell wine and strong beer. The proposal has drawn fervent supporters and opponents who have debated how it would affect businesses, state regulations and efforts to curb alcohol abuse.
But the ballot measure and Senate Bill 383, a 200-page companion bill that sets many of the specific rules, has also led to confusion about what exactly the changes would mean. Here is a look at what you can expect if voters pass the proposal:
Q: What do current laws say?
A: Grocery stores and convenience stores can only sell low-point beer, which is beer with an alcohol content by weight of 3.2 percent or less. The beer may be refrigerated and sales are allowed any day of the week from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. of the next day.
Package liquor stores can sell liquor, wine and full-strength beer only at room temperature. Sales are only allowed between 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
A series of Q&As and forums on Nov. 8 state questions is made possible by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.
Q: How would SQ 792 change those laws?
A: Grocery, convenience and drug stores would be able to sell cold regular beer (with an alcohol beverage volume of up to 8.99 percent) and wine (with an alcohol beverage volume up to 15 percent.) Under SB 383, sales would be allowed any day of the week, from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. of the following day.
Liquor stores would be able to sell cold full-strength beer, wine and spirits, and sell them later at night – from 10 a.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday. They would still be closed Sundays, although that could be changed by the Legislature before the measure takes effect. Liquor stores also could sell other products, such as food and bottle openers, as long as the sales don’t exceed 20 percent of their monthly revenue.
Q: Why is a state question needed?
A: Many of Oklahoma’s alcohol restrictions are included in the state’s constitution. SQ 792 would amend the constitution and give the Legislature the authority to make many of the new rules. That’s where Senate Bill 383 comes into play.
The bill, which passed this year, sets licensing, distribution, enforcement and other regulations that would be managed by the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission. The legislation, however, will only take effect if a majority of voters approve SQ 792.
Q: When would the law take effect?
A: Oct. 1, 2018.
Q: Why so long?
A: The two-year delay is intended give liquor, grocery and convenience stores time to make business and logistical changes. It also allows the Legislature time to act during the 2017 or 2018 legislative session to make changes to state laws.
Q: How would oversight of alcohol laws change?
A: Currently, the ABLE commission oversees licensing for liquor, wine and normal or strong beer sales. The Oklahoma Tax Commission handles applications for low-point beer sales. SQ792 would put all oversight and licensing under ABLE.
Q: Direct shipment of wine is now prohibited in Oklahoma. Would this change?
A: Yes. Wineries in Oklahoma or another state could purchase a direct wine shipper’s permit ($300 for an original permit, $150 for a renewal) allowing them to ship up to six nine-liter cases of wine – the equivalent of 72 750ml bottles – per year to an Oklahoma resident. The shipped wine, however, could not be one that is already available in an Oklahoma store.
A consumer who is at least 21 could order for shipment up to 30 nine-liter cases – the equivalent of 360 bottles – per year. However, consumers would have to obtain a direct wine consumer permit from the ABLE commission. SB 383 does not set a price for the consumer permit. Instead, it instructs ABLE to set up rules governing the issuance of the permits.
Q: Would SQ 792 change the age requirements for those who sell alcohol?
A: It would. Currently, liquor stores employees must be at least 21 if they sell or handle alcoholic beverages. Retailers who sell only low-point beer are not covered by ABLE and their employees can be young as 16.
SQ 792 would require that employees at grocery and convenience stores be at least 18 in order to handle or sell beer or wine. Employees at liquor stores must be 21.
Q: Would penalties for selling alcohol to an underage person change?
A: They will get somewhat lighter. It’s now a felony to knowingly sell or give an alcoholic beverage to someone under 21. This carries a penalty of between $2,500 and $5,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.
If SQ 792 passes, it will be a misdemeanor for a first violation, with a penalty of up to a $500 fine and a year in jail. Each subsequent violation would be a felony with a penalty of between $2,500 and $5,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.
Q: Who supports and opposes the question?
A: Supporters include Beer Distributors of Oklahoma, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Oklahoma Beer Alliance, Oklahoma Grape Industry Council, Oklahoma Grocers Association, Oklahoma Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, Oklahoma Retail Merchants Association, Oklahomans for Consumer Freed and Tulsa Regional Chamber.
The most vocal opponent is the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, which has challenged the constitutionality of the measure in the courts. Mental-health professionals and leaders also have expressed concerns about increased access to alcohol.
Q: Would the changes help business and Oklahoma’s economy?
A: A coalition of groups that support the measure, called Yes on 792, says it will strengthen craft brewers and wineries by expanding the access of their products. It will also modernize Oklahoma’s image, making it more attractive to out-of-state companies and convention groups, supporters say. Yes on 792’s website also says the measure will increase state tax revenues because “Oklahomans won’t have to travel out of state to get products they want.” Proponents do not say whether Oklahomans will purchase and consume more alcohol.
The Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma argues SQ 792 will hurt the state’s economy. At a recent Oklahoma Watch-Out forum, Bryan Kerr, president of the group, predicted that half of about 600 local retail package stores in the state will go out of business if the state question passes. Revenue from sales of alcohol will instead go to big retail chains, most of them based out of state, so money will leave Oklahoma’s economy, opponents say.
Q: Would this contribute to societal problems, such as alcohol abuse?
A: It’s unclear, and supporters and opponents disagree. Supporters are skeptical that SQ 792 would add to the state’s alcohol problems. State Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, who was a lead sponsor on SB 383, said many of the provisions, such as increasing the age of people who can sell beer, could prevent underage drinking.
Kerr argues that unless enforcement measures are boosted and funding for substance abuse treatment is increased, greater access to strong beer and wine will exacerbate the state’s problems.