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IN Focus: Lawmakers battle over beer at Statehouse

INDIANAPOLIS – In a quick attempt to fix what some Indiana lawmakers see as a major issue in current law, a new amendment was introduced this past week targeting the sale of cold beer at gas stations.

The language, though, could undergo dramatic changes before the House Public Policy committee is expected to officially vote Monday, but not before several hours of debate at the Statehouse.

The seemingly frantic attempt to address the issue comes less than a month after the Ricker’s convenience store chain started selling cold beer at two of its locations in Bloomington and Sheridan.

Ricker’s received approval and a permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission to do so.

The Indiana-based chain has spent the past year-and-a-half revamping and building new stores with the addition of a Tex-Mex made-to-order restaurant.

“We really would like the ability to have a cold beer for our patrons,” Jay Ricker told the committee, chairman of Ricker’s. “They’ve been asking for it.”

State law prohibits gas stations from selling cold beer.

On Friday, Gov. Eric Holcomb said he believed Ricker's and state officials were complying with the law in this specific instance.

Still, a number of top Republicans, including House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) and Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne), are demanding a quick fix, seeing the addition of a restaurant as a way around the law.

“The public policy of this state is we don’t sell cold beer and spirits at the same place you buy gas,” Bosma said last week. “And that’s what we have right now.”

Ricker told lawmakers Wednesday the decision to add restaurants and sell cold beer is a business decision, one fully and forcefully vetted and compliant with current state law.

“Yes, you can change the law,” Ricker said. “I understand that. We may not agree, but what really bothers me … is where I have permits already and have made tens-of-thousands of dollars of investment in equipment, training, a lot of different things. You want to take those licenses away from me.”

Opponents of the legislative action, that in its original language would require 90 percent of a businesses’ gross retail income to come from food and beverage in order to sell cold beer, would have widespread consequences to other businesses like golf courses, movie theaters and bowling alleys.

“This is a major public policy change what you have before you,” said Scot Imus, Executive Director of the Indiana Petroleum Markets and Convenience Store Association. “Is this what you want to do in the last weeks of the session?”

Several lawmakers expressed concern with the quick pace of the proposed language, which was added to a bill addressing other alcohol-related issues, and any unintended consequences it may spur.

The committee chairman, State Rep. Ben Smaltz (R-Auburn), said lawmakers will spend the next several days examining the language.

“It’s a very serious issue we have to deal with,” said State Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne), the House Majority Leader. “But it really sheds a light on the bigger problem.”

Lehman said that is Indiana’s entire alcohol code, telling committee members it is time for a serious look at a major overhaul that could take several years.