- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - An initiative petition to overhaul Oklahoma’s alcohol laws would provide an unfair advantage to liquor stores over their competition, claimed a group representing grocery and convenience stores that wants the petition rejected on constitutional grounds.

An Oklahoma Supreme Court referee on Tuesday heard arguments from the Oklahoma Grocers Association and the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma on the former’s challenge to a proposed ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell strong beer and wine.

The Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma introduced the proposal, State Question No. 791 , which would prohibit existing grocery stores from obtaining a wine license if they are within 500 feet of a licensed liquor store. The grocery store group says this prohibition should render the proposal unconstitutional.

“The 500-foot geographic restriction incentivizes liquor stores to obtain licenses in the midterm and open stores within the affected area in order to prevent grocery store access to the marketplace,” the Oklahoma Grocers Association claimed in its legal challenge.

Liquor store advocates argue the grocers’ legal challenge doesn’t meet the standard of unconstitutionality required for the court to strike down a petition.

Bryan Kerr, president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, said the petition is an alternative to a separate ballot measure passed by the Oklahoma Legislature legalizing strong beer and wine sales in more locations, including grocery stores.

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.

But Kerr said his organization’s proposal, which includes a more “measured rollout” of wine licenses for grocery stores than the Legislature’s proposal, would allow the state’s liquor stores to adjust more smoothly to new market conditions.

“The 500-foot requirement was not something that we feel like is going to actually keep a bunch of liquor stores in business,” Kerr said. “There are some liquor stores that are close to grocery stores, but by and large they are few and far between.”

Ron Edgmon, president of the Oklahoma Grocers Association, said he is not sure how many grocery stores would not be able to obtain licenses to sell wine because of the 500-foot rule. He said a number of convenience stores have liquor stores near their premises, sometimes in the same building.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court had invalidated a similar initiative petition from the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma in May, ruling that the group’s original petition called for significant changes in the state’s liquor laws and that the written explanation of its effect, called the gist, was insufficient and misleading. The group later introduced the proposal currently under consideration.

After Tuesday’s hearing, the referee will prepare a report summarizing the arguments and present it to the full Oklahoma Supreme Court, which will eventually rule on the constitutionality of the ballot proposal. If the proposal is determined to be constitutional, its proponents can then begin to collect signatures to qualify it for the ballot.

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