Topeka Kansas lawmakers have been talking about alcohol a lot this legislative session, with more than a dozen proposed bills in various stages of the legislative process.
Although alcohol-related laws are proposed every session, Sen. Pete Brungardt, chairman of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, said it's unusual to have so many liquor bills under consideration.
During a recent meeting, Brungardt's committee heard testimony on bills to expand licensing options and allow sampling at distilleries, passed a bill allowing full-strength alcoholic drinks on state lands and waters and delayed discussion on a bill to loosen happy hour restrictions to the following day, where three other alcohol-related bills were already waiting.
Brungardt said most of the liquor legislation in his committee involves minor tweaks to existing law, which he said happens nearly every year, in part because of intense efforts by several lobbyists.
One of those lobbyists told The Topeka-Capital Journal that 13 alcohol-related bills are before the legislature.
The bill drawing the most interest would allow groceries and convenience stores to acquire liquor licenses. The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee held hearings that attracted several supporters and opponents. Liquor store owners argued grocers who could sell liquor would drive them out of business. Grocery store owners responded that Kansas residents should be allowed to decide where to buy their alcohol.
Doug Jorgenson, director of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control division, told the House committee he expected about 2,000 more establishments would apply for liquor licenses if the bill passed. While that would increase revenue for the state, his agency would need another $1.4 million in funding to hire 18 more staff members, said Jorgenson, who said he is neutral on the bill.
"We're doing our best right now, but we're short-staffed and underfunded like most state agencies," he said.
The bill has been referred to a subcommittee in the House, while a similar bill sits in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee.
Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan said he won't hold the bill in committee but will vote against it if it gets to the Senate floor.
"If I'd have had my druthers years ago, I'd still be in the same place my father and my family were and put alcohol way back on the back burner and leave it there," said Reitz, a physician. "That's not the case anymore and these things are all coming along."
Philip Bradley, of p.b.c Consulting, is representing Artisan Distillers of Kansas' efforts to create a separate, more affordable class of license for producers of 50,000 gallons of hard liquor or less each year.
Bradley, who also represents craft brewers and farm wineries, said he wasn't sure why so many liquor bills were before lawmakers this year.
"I could speculate, but speculating never gets you anywhere," Bradley said. "There's just an awful lot of them and we're grinding through them, slowly and surely hopefully."