Buzzkill: State alcohol laws unlikely to change 

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All Anita Johnson wants to do is drink a beer with her ribeye at the Indiana State Fair — an Indiana-brewed beer, that is.

But because of a law that's been in place for years, she won't get to enjoy Indiana's beer at the state fair, even though the fairgrounds allows alcohol for most other events throughout the year.

She wants a place to show off all of Indiana's craft beers and wine to people from all over the country. And that place, she says, is the Indiana State Fair.

"We have so many microbreweries and brewpubs that are producing beer here in Indiana," said Johnson, owner of Great Fermentations, a store in Indianapolis for home-brewers and winemakers. "So we have local employment, local taxes, and the profits stay local. There's no better place to showcase those local value-added ag products than at the Indiana State Fair."

House Bill 1093, currently fermenting in the Indiana Statehouse, would make Johnson's wish come true, allowing for Indiana beer and wine sales at the fair, in designated areas.

But the state fair ban isn't alone among Indiana's seemingly idiosyncratic alcohol laws under review this legislative session. It's also illegal to sell alcohol on Sundays — except at restaurants, bars, and sporting events; cold beer can only be purchased at the liquor store, though there are aisles of warm stuff on sale at your nearby supermarket; and current law requires everyone to show identification when purchasing alcohol— even 80 year-old grandmas.

Other states in the country have similarly specific alcohol laws. In Utah, for example, beer with more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight cannot be sold. In Pennsylvania, beer can only be sold in beverage outlets by the case or in taverns; selling beer in grocery stores is illegal.

Unfortunately for Hoosiers, Indiana's alcohol laws are no less curious. But that could change if any of several new bills pass muster in the state General Assembly and at the governor's mansion.

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"It's time for Indiana to align their laws with the lifestyle of people today," said State Sen. Phil Boots (R-Crawfordsville). "I think they should be able to go out and make all the purchases in one day. It's time for Indiana to come out of the 18th century and get with how people have decided they want to live."

A cold one in hell

You don't have to be a Democrat or a Republican to enjoy cold beer. Sen. Boots, a Republican, is doing his best to get Indiana caught up with the times. For the second straight year he has authored a bill — Senate Bill 197 — which would allows Sunday alcohol and cold beer sales.

But while some Indiana lawmakers, like Sen. Boots, want more progressive alcohol laws, they're facing stiff opposition from some major buzzkills.

When it comes to cold beer sales, liquor stores essentially have a monopoly across the state, and aren't expected to give that up without a fight.

As for Sunday sales, critics like John Livengood, CEO of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, a trade association group that represents liquor stores, believe the bill would put liquor stores out of business.

At present, Sunday is the only day each week when liquor stores are closed. Mom-and-pop vendors would be forced to either stay open seven days a week, or cede a regular weekly portion of their revenue: buyers who stock up early for Sunday consumption.

"We see the Sunday alcohol sale proposal as simply a way for the big box stores and the convenience stores to try to get a bigger share of the market at the expense of the package stores," Livengood said on the association's website. "The package stores would probably go out of business and 8,000 employees would be put out on the street and out of work. So we see it as a major survival issue."

But Sen. Boots thinks the liquor store lobby is overreacting.

"The majority of the people that I've been working for are not necessarily large businesses," he said. "They're small convenience stores, small grocery stores. And there's no evidence that indicates that liquor stores will be damaged or harmed by this legislation at all."

Sen. Boots cited studies in which 11 of the last 12 states to have allowed Sunday alcohol sales actually saw increased sales at liquor stores.

Indiana is in the minority when it comes to the Sunday ban. Such so-called "blue laws" —laws at least nominally based on religious standards — make Indiana one of only three states that allow for Sunday consumption at bars and restaurants but do not allow purchase for off-site consumption.

The current trend in the U.S. is to repeal laws that make Sunday sales illegal. Since 2002, 14 states have repealed their blue laws. In all, 36 states allow Sunday alcohol sales.

The bill to end Indiana's blue law has stalled, for now, in the Public Policy Committee. The press secretary for Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette), chair of the committee, said the senator is undecided about whether or not he will hold a hearing for the bill in committee.

If not, Hoosiers may have to wait until another session — if not longer — before the restrictions are loosened.

State fairness

The Indiana State fair bill is dealing with a legislative back-and-forth similar to the one seen thus far for the Sunday alcohol bill.

Critics of the state fair bill have been vocal both inside and outside the Statehouse. The Indianapolis Star's Matthew Tully wrote that booze at the fair would "tarnish... one of the state's most treasured and family-friendly events."

However, craft beer promoters like Johnson, from Great Fermentations, say they don't understand why the state fair is singled out among other events — like Colts, Pacers and Indians games.

"This moralistic thing about 'we want to keep it a family venue' — well that went out a long time ago when they allowed alcohol at all these other venues," she said.

"It would also protect children more so than these other municipally-owned venues, where a child can be holding the hand of purchaser of beer while they buy it and while they consume it," Johnson added. "They wouldn't be if they were in a beer garden at the Indiana State fair."

For now, it looks as though alcohol sales at the state fair won't happen this session. House Public Policy Committee Chairman Bill Davis (R-Portland) said he does not intend to give it a committee hearing.

"Rep. Davis does not believe that House Bill 1093 would add anything to the state fair," said Tory Flynn, media director for Indiana House Republicans. "He believes it's a family-friendly event and that it should stay that way."

Some slack for grandma?

There is one alcohol-related bill, however, that is getting attention in the Indiana legislature. But it's to repeal a law from last year that requires anyone purchasing alcohol to show ID, no matter how old.

Signs indicate that could soon change. Earlier this month, the Indiana House passed legislation to repeal the law, 90-7. With such a clear majority in the House, it's likely not to see much resistance in the Senate.

But even if this bill passes in the Senate, supporters of reform say it seems like Indiana's alcohol laws will remain anachronistic for the near future.

"We're a little out of sync with the rest of the nation," Sen. Boots said. "And it's time for us to move on."

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