Topeka Liquor stores that hold the monopoly on strong beers are fighting for the exclusive right to keep the tap flowing.
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would push open the door to allow convenience stores and grocery stores to sell stronger beer. Currently, those cereal malt beverage vendors are capped at selling 3.2 beer, but the bill would allow the sale of beer with 4 percent alcohol by weight. The bill also would put Alcoholic Beverage Control in charge of cereal malt beverage vendors.
For proponents, the bill is about fairness. They say they need help overcoming a perception that 3.2 beers are inferior and argue they took a hit in business when the drinking age was raised to 21.
Brenda Ellsworth, owner of Pump’n Pete’s in Parsons, argued that liquor stores are able to profit from their advantage and charge higher prices for a product she said customers perceive to be superior. Raising the level to 4 percent would allow cereal malt beverage vendors to sell most major domestic brands at regular strength, just as they are sold in liquor stores.
“What customers want is competition, they want choice, and they want convenience,” she said. “There is not going to be competition until liquor stores no longer have their protected niche.”
Rep. Scott Schwab argued the bill was about allowing the free market to operate without constraints.
“As you listen today,” he said in testimony, “I ask you to consider the same question as our founding fathers: How can we free the marketplace and encourage free enterprise?”
Liquor store owners said it wouldn’t be fair to change the law. Owners argued that they were in a better position to ensure stronger beers were only sold to of-age customers since the law requires that their workers be 21 or older. Hiring workers who are 21 or older, they said, is just one requirement they face that they said cereal malt beverage vendors wouldn’t have to comply with.
Rodney Robson, who owns Jo’s Liquor Store in Caney, said convenience stores could sell beer at far lower rates that would drive an estimated 200 liquor stores out of business. He says his store probably would close because most of his sales are for beer.
“Kansas cannot afford the loss of jobs, and we cannot afford to change the liquor laws that have withstood the test of time for years,” he said. “It is not time for change. It is time to realize that the regulated role of state-licensed liquor stores has value.”