- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A new plan for Oklahoma voters to decide whether wine and strong beer can be sold in grocery and convenience stores could be the first of many alcohol-related questions on the November ballot.

Oklahomans for Modern Laws is a group supported by an Oklahoma City beer enthusiast who spent more than $500,000 in a failed effort to get the measure on the ballot in 2012. The paperwork was filed this week so the group can begin the effort to get the more than 120,000 signatures they need to put the question on the ballot.

Meanwhile, talks are heating up among all the players in Oklahoma’s alcohol industry - distillers, brewers, wholesalers, distributors and different retail groups - on a legislative plan to send the issue to a public vote.

If those negotiations fall apart, each separate faction could propose their own competing ballot measures, forcing voters to wade through as many as four or five state questions on alcohol laws.

“There are a lot of people who are involved in this, and we will not get unanimity. We know that going into it,” said Sen. Clark Jolley, a Republican from Edmond who has tried unsuccessfully for years to update the state’s liquor laws. “But we hope we can get enough buy-in from the major players who will say: ‘This is better for us than to have the people get frustrated with the process and force it on us without us having the ability to take into account the practical ramifications.’”

Most of Oklahoma’s liquor laws were developed in the late 1950s and include a thorny mix of statutes and constitutional amendments that can’t be changed without a vote of the people. Those complications, combined with the competing interests of various industries, have thwarted previous attempts to change the law.

Currently, liquor, wine and beer in excess of 3.2-percent alcohol can be sold only at package stores, which are strictly licensed and regulated and closed on Sundays. Oklahoma is one of only five states in which low-point beer is sold. Unlike strong beer, it can be refrigerated and purchased at grocery and convenience stores until 2 a.m. and on Sundays.

One group determined to oppose wine sales in grocery stores is the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, which represents about 700 package stores, said Bryan Kerr, the group’s president and the owner of Moore Liquor. While Kerr said the group is open to modernizing some of the state’s liquor laws, including allowing sales of cold, strong beer at grocery stores, he fears the proposals would put his members out of business.

“If the legislation comes out as we expect it will, I anticipate 300 to 350 locally owned retail package stores closing within a year of the passage of that legislation, maybe as many as 400,” Kerr said.

Kerr said he’s optimistic he could rally enough legislators who don’t want local businesses to shut down and conservatives with a moral objection to expanded alcohol sales to derail the legislative plan. If not, he said his group is ready to draft its own question for the November ballot to allow for the sale of refrigerated strong beer and expand the list of products that can be sold at package stores, among other things.

Pat McFerron, a GOP political consultant and pollster representing grocers, including Wal-Mart, said the group is committed to negotiating legislation that would put the issue to voters, but he acknowledged how difficult it will be to reach consensus among the competing interests.

He also said his group is ready to pursue its own ballot initiative.

“Our focus is on giving our customers more choices,” McFerron said. “We don’t want to get dragged in to how we get that product, but we do want to make sure all the parties are negotiating in a good faith, so we can get a legislative solution.”

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Senate Bill 383: https://bit.ly/1SLHDdJ

Senate Joint Resolution 68: https://bit.ly/1K1al9t

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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