Bill to allow sale of wine in grocery stores in House committee | Arkansas Blog

Bill to allow sale of wine in grocery stores in House committee


Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs)

The Senate narrowly passed Sen. Bart Hester's (R-Cave Springs) bill to allow the sale of wine in grocery stores yesterday, 18-11. SB 284 is now on the agenda of the House Rules Committee, which meets at 1 p.m. today.

As we reported earlier in the week, there's all sorts of political jockeying going on behind the scenes here. The bill — apparently Walmart's No. 1 priority this session — is a product of a deal between Walmart and other grocers and the Arkansas Beverage Retailers Association and Arkansas wineries. The Times has obtained a copy of an agreement, dated Nov. 21, that sketches out terms. In return for standing down against the push to allow wine in grocery stores, the grocers agree to not pursue any statewide or local efforts to turn dry parts of Arkansas wet for eight years from the date the legislation is signed into law. The deal also outlines that new license fees will benefit Arkansas wineries, which is reflected in SB 284. Arkansas wineries would be eligible for grants from a newly created Arkansas Wine Grants Fund and a portion of the money would go to the creation of a wine tourism facility in Franklin County.

Meanwhile, many ABRA members who weren't party to the deal have started a splinter group, the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas to fight the bill. UBRA argues the bill gives grocery stores an unfair advantage against liquor stores: Grocers wouldn't be subject to the same rules and restrictions liquor stores have to abide by. There wouldn't be the same requirements that stores be setback from schools or churches, and grocers could undercut liquor stores by selling at, or near, cost thanks to their ability to buy in huge volume or their ability to offer one product at a small margin to get customers in the store to buy other products. UBRA also cites the "slippery" slope argument, that first it's wine and next it will be liquor.

Aside from all those arguments, liquor stores didn't get enough concessions in the deal ABRA made with Walmart and Co., one UBRA member told me. Tennessee passed a similar law in 2014, but allowed liquor stores to begin selling cigarettes, beer, food products and more items they previously weren't allowed to sell. The law also didn't go into effect for two years, which allowed the liquor stores time to adjust their business model.

Consumer Access for Arkansas, the group formed to push the bill, makes a straightforward case for the change: "Convenient access to a better wine selection."

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