The latest battle over laws governing Indiana alcohol sales heats ups, coincidentally, just as federal authorities push for a lower threshold for drunken driving. State lawmakers don’t appear to be interested in reducing the legal blood-alcohol level for driving, but they must give a comprehensive review to Indiana’s mishmash of alcohol laws. An overhaul is sorely needed.
Laws governing the sale of alcohol that lawmakers have cobbled together over the years have created an uneven field of competition. The debate is a never-ending issue at the Statehouse, consuming an absurd amount of legislators’ time and attention and fueled by about $1 million a year in lobbying dollars.
The Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court over laws restricting convenience shops, grocery stores and pharmacies from selling cold beer. The statewide trade group contends the lawsuit is about fairness.
The complaint says Indiana’s alcohol statutes and regulations create an irrational and discriminatory regulatory regime. They suggest the state should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the alcohol market. The convenience store lobbyists are correct.
But so is the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, the trade group representing liquor stores. It argues that regulations placed on liquor stores that don’t apply to grocery or convenience stores also create an unfair market advantage.
Liquor stores are limited to selling only alcohol or alcohol-related products. Liquor store clerks must be at least 21, undergo at least two hours of state certified training, and have a license that costs $45 every three years.
I think there is a lot of money involved in the liquor lobby, and there are a lot of influential people involved, said Julia Vaughn, director of Common Cause Indiana. The politics creates gridlock. It’s a good example of what can happen when there is so much money and influence involved. So much of making legislation is not about policy; it’s about how you feel about the person trying to bend your ear on a certain issue. I think it serves to create this crazy quilt of laws we have.
Vaughn reasonably suggests that stricter limits on lobbyists’ wining, dining and gift-giving to lawmakers, as well as greater disclosure, might remove some of the politics from the process.
With tighter limits in place, a sound study of Indiana’s current laws is more likely to produce the recommendations needed for a revision yielding less complexity, more fairness and sensible regulation of alcoholic beverages.