Jeri Ford studied the wine selection Tuesday in an aisle of a downtown Marsh grocery, a few feet away from where retailing heavyweights had minutes before announced a renewed push for Sunday carryout sales of alcohol in Indiana.
Ford is one of the 52 percent of Hoosiers – according to a recent Ball State University poll – who support Sunday sales. After all, more than once, Ford had found herself without a bottle of wine to serve for a special Sunday dinner.
“I just forget all together that I need to buy it ahead of time,” Ford said, shaking her head. “And then you can’t and you’re stuck.”
But she wouldn’t consider herself part of some groundswell of support for changing the law. Would Ford sign a petition supporting the proposal? Probably. But call her legislator about it? Probably not.
And that’s the kind of action it might take for the General Assembly to move forward with a change that’s been proposed every year since 2008 but has never gained legislative traction.
“We think this is our best chance,” said Grant Monahan, executive director of the Indiana Retail Council.
But liquor store owners – who oppose Sunday sales in part because they think it will be an unprofitable day – say there’s nothing special about the 2015 session that would indicate a change is imminent. “It’s no different than any other year,” said Patrick Tamm, the chief executive officer of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers.
He said efforts to change the law are led by large chain grocery and convenience stores who are active across the country trying to deregulate the alcohol industry. In Indiana, that involves a three-tier system of wholesalers, distributors and retailers who have specific laws that govern what they can sell, when and to whom. Tamm said upsetting one part of that system leads to consequences in other parts.
“Sound public policy of where and how alcohol is sold is being driven by expensive astroturfing – which is the practice of misleading the public by those with a vested interest through glitzy campaigns disguised at grassroots efforts,” Tamm said.
More fundamentally, Tamm argues that legalizing carryout on Sundays won’t lead to more sales but will mean higher cost for liquor stores that will have almost no choice but to open their doors one more day.
But advocates of the change say Indiana is losing millions in sales to neighboring states – not just in alcohol but accompanying food sales that come with a trip to the grocery store.
And the arguments for Sunday sales have been successful elsewhere. Since 2002, 16 states have repealed laws restricting alcohol sales on Sundays. Cam Carter, a vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said it’s time that Indiana sheds its “prohibition era rules” as well.
Members of Hoosiers for Sunday Sales – a coalition that includes Kroger, Walmart, Marsh and several other retailers plus the chamber and other business groups – say they have several reasons to feel positive.
There’s that Ball State poll of 600 Hoosiers, which found that 52 percent support Sunday sales, 46 percent oppose and 2 percent either don’t know or didn’t answer. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points.
And Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte – the relatively new House Public Policy Committee chairman – seems more open to the idea than past chairs. Legislative leaders have also said they expect the issue to get more debate than in previous years.
Plus, the coalition has hired Megan Robertson, a public policy campaign manager who led a successful, bipartisan effort to stymie a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. She did it in part by harnessing the power of grassroots politics, convincing every day housewives, ministers, business owners and others to call their local lawmakers.
She thinks a similar effort can lead to Sunday carryout sales, which are allowed in 38 states including all of Indiana’s neighbors. On Tuesday, Kroger spokesman John Elliott said the campaign will likely include some advertising. But the emphasis will be on educating customers and their friends about the issue.
“We hear it every day at the register,” Monahan said. “We know our customers are supportive.”
Still, Monahan said it’s not clear yet who will sponsor the legislation to legalize Sunday sales. The 2015 session begins Jan. 6 and runs through April.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.