Big box retailers would be allowed to sell alcohol in some Kansas counties under a bill discussed by a state Senate panel Tuesday.
The bill would allow supermarkets and other retailers to sell liquor, wine and full-strength beer in counties that approve the measure through a local election. Similar measures have met stiff resistance in the Legislature for years despite a fierce lobbying effort in favor of the move.
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Republican Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer from Grinnell, who chairs the Federal and State Affairs Committee considering the bill, said that the idea of expanding liquor licenses has long been discussed, but once national retail chains got behind the cause, "the game plan changed."
State legislators commonly refer to the issue by the name of the lobbying organization advocating for it — UnCork Kansas — which represents corporate and independent grocery stores in the state, according to UnCork lobbyist Jessica Lucas.
Opponents say that allowing the major chains to sell alcohol would drive profits away from the state's roughly 750 individually owned liquor stores and put that money in the hands of out-of-state corporations.
Mike O'Neil, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the state's largest business group and a major backer of conservative legislators, told the committee that current laws giving liquor stores the exclusive right to sell stronger alcohol is a "glaring exception" to an otherwise competitive consumer marketplace.
But Republican Sen. Rob Olson from Olathe said at the hearing that national chains enjoy other tax incentives to invest in the state that are unavailable to individual liquor stores.
Both sides of the argument have been major campaign contributors and have spent thousands on meal expenses for meetings with individual legislators this year, according to ethics commission disclosures.
A House committee approved a bill in February that would allow larger retailers to sell alcohol starting in 2018, but House Speaker Ray Merrick said in an emailed statement Friday that the chamber is waiting for the Senate to act before putting it to a floor debate.
Ostmeyer said that most of his committee members oppose the idea and he is "catching hell" from constituents for scheduling the hearing on the version of the proposal leaving the issue to counties, but said he did so on the urging of Senate leadership.
Senate Majority Leader Republican Terry Bruce, of Nickerson, said at a GOP caucus meeting Wednesday that the House version of the bill would only get about 12 Republican votes in the 40-seat Senate and so he is interested to test the support of the county option if the committee endorses it.
"If they can get something worked up, we probably do need to take a crack at it on the floor," Bruce said.
The bill's reception in the full Senate will be an indicator of whether the more expansive House proposal would have a chance in the chamber, Bruce said.
One way or the other, Ostmeyer said that the intensity of the lobbying efforts in favor of it have grown so much that the Legislature will likely pass a bill on it eventually.
"They'll probably get it through sometime. You spend enough money, you'll get it through," Ostmeyer said.