OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma liquor retailers are challenging sweeping voter-approved guidelines that expand wine and strong beer sales to grocery and convenience stores but remain puzzled about how their businesses will fit into the new regulatory landscape if their legal challenge is unsuccessful.
State law currently allows wine and strong beer to be sold only at licensed package liquor stores. But the law approved in November would allow grocery and convenience stores to also sell those products starting on Oct. 1, 2018.
"The little liquor store down the street is now going to have to compete with the QuickTrip, with the 7-Eleven," said J.P. Richard, owner of Cache Road Liquor & Wine in Lawton. "We are put at a tremendous disadvantage."
Bryan Kerr, president of the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma and owner of Moore Liquor, said it is likely that many of the state's 600 package liquor stores will be forced to close if the new regulations go into effect.
"The vast majority of liquor store owners are figuring out: 'How do I survive in this new reality,'" Kerr said. "You have to kind of change the way you do business."
Until the retail liquor group's lawsuit is resolved, Kerr said it is unlikely any retail package liquor businesses will expand or new ones open.
"That would be a very bold and bordering-on-foolish move," he said.
The Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission, which is responsible for enforcing Oklahoma's liquor laws, is moving ahead with plans to rewrite the state's liquor laws to comply with the new constitutional amendment.
The measure also gives the state permission to sell drinks in state lodges and allows liquor stores to chill strong beer and sell non-alcoholic items such as ice and mixers.
Some of Oklahoma's liquor laws date to the Prohibition era, with one limiting beer sales in grocery stores to products with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent or less.
"Technically all of it is gone and all of it is replaced," the alcohol commission's general counsel, Steven Barker, said. "We have every intention and plan to accomplish that."
The commission is asking for a $1 million increase in funding because of the thousands of retail liquor applications expected when the new rules go into effect. The money would pay for six new enforcement agents and three administrative staff members.
The retail liquor group's lawsuit, filed on Monday in Oklahoma County District Court, asks for a temporary restraining order to block the commission from implementing the new alcohol laws.
Kerr said the group believes the rules violate "the U.S. Constitution by giving preferential treatment to grocery stores, convenience stores and other out-of-state businesses over locally-owned retail package stores."
The group also believes it "would result in higher prices and reduced selection for the drinking consumer in Oklahoma."
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for February.