- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahomans will decide whether to expand access to alcohol in the state and permit cold strong beer and wine to be sold in grocery and convenience stores under legislation state lawmakers approved Thursday.

The House and Senate passed measures that authorize a sweeping overhaul of the state’s alcohol laws but hinge on voter approval in November.

Currently, liquor, wine and strong beer are sold only at licensed package stores, which are strictly regulated and closed on Sundays. Oklahoma allows refrigerated low-point beer to be sold at grocery and convenience stores until 2 a.m. and on Sundays.

Supporters of the measures said that 41 other states already allow the sale of strong beer and wine in grocery stores and that the measures are needed to update Oklahoma’s alcohol laws. Oklahoma is one of only five states that only allow grocery stores to sell 3.2 percent alcohol content beer.

“It promotes small business. It gives consumers choice,” said the House author of the measures, Rep. Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa.

Sen. Stephanie Bice, who worked on the proposal in the Senate, described the thorny mix of statutes and constitutional changes needed to modernize the statutes as “somewhat of an unscrambling of the egg.”

“It required us to do an entire title rewrite,” said Bice, R-Oklahoma City. “This has been a long process.”

But opponents said expanding access to alcohol will lead to an increase in problem drinking, especially underage drinking.

“This is not a good bill to protect all the areas of our society,” said Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell.

Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said the measures make no attempt to raise taxes on alcohol for what would be the first time in 30 years to provide funds to treat problem drinkers.

“You’re going to have these negative social consequences,” Nelson said.

The measures, which have been opposed by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, may force many small liquor stores in the state to close, said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City.

The Senate voted 33-12 for the 285-page bill . The House later approved the measure on a 52-45 vote and sent it to Gov. Mary Fallin to be signed into law.

The bill is a companion measure to a question the received final passage in the House that will go on the November ballot asking voters to loosen Oklahoma’s alcohol laws. If the ballot question passes, the measures would go into effect in 2018. If it fails, the legislation would be dead.

Earlier Thursday, the House gave final approval to a separate measure that would authorize on-site beer sales at breweries.

Organizations that support the measures praised their passage.

“A legislative solution was always our top priority and now we can shift our focus to getting out the vote in November,” said Tyler Moore, spokesman for Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of retailers, consumers, and free-market advocates.

Eric James, senior director of sales and marketing for Anheuser-Busch Sales of Oklahoma, said the company has been a staunch advocate for updating the state’s liquor laws.

“We are confident that this November, Oklahomans will support modernization, consumer choice and economic growth,” James said in a statement.

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Associated Press writer Sean Murphy contributed to this report.

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