FRANKFORT — Keeping tabs on Kentucky's hodgepodge of laws governing the sale of alcoholic beverages could drive a guy to drink, and Gov. Steve Beshear wants to simplify them.
State Alcoholic Beverage Control officials and industry representatives say Kentucky's diverse alcohol laws have produced a confusing patchwork of counties that are dry, which prohibit all sale of alcoholic beverages; wet, which permit full retail sales of booze under state license; and moist, having a wet city in a dry county.
Of Kentucky's 120 counties, 39 are dry, 32 are wet and 49 are moist or dry with special circumstances, such as sales at a winery in otherwise dry Carter County.
The map of the status of alcohol sales in Kentucky frequently changes because of local option elections to expand the sale of alcohol. The laws, some of which have been on the books since 1935 after the end of Prohibition, allow counties, cities or even individual precincts to vote wet or dry.
But the laws are a lot more complex than that.
For example, if a dry city votes to become wet, a precinct in the city can have another local option election to return to dry status. But if a wet city votes to become dry, a city precinct may not have another election to return to wet status.
Within the past three weeks, communities in four Kentucky counties have held local option elections.
Residents of La Grange in Oldham County approved the sale of alcoholic beverages. Georgetown in Scott County voted to expand alcohol sales, and Princeton in Caldwell County approved restaurant and package liquor sales. Residents in Sturgis in Union County voted one precinct in town wet but kept two other precincts dry.
Other cities, including Somerset, Murray and Franklin, voted earlier in the summer to expand or legalize alcohol sales.
Kentucky laws dealing with local option elections aren't the only alcohol laws that are perplexing.
■ In Kentucky, a consumer may buy a bottle of wine in a drug store but not in a supermarket. A grocery store has to have a separate entrance and shop to sell wine or liquor.
■ Kentucky has more than 70 types of licenses for the sale of alcohol, including four types of restaurant licenses. The state has issued more than 13,000 licenses.
■ A consumer may carry a running tab at a bar to buy beer but not for distilled spirits or wine.
■ Voters cannot buy alcoholic beverages during primary or general elections but can during special elections.
■ You must be at least 21 to buy alcoholic beverages but you can be a bartender at 20.
"Our state laws governing the sale of alcoholic beverages are very piecemeal, to say the least," Tony Doehner, commissioner of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said during a recent interview in his Frankfort office.
Doehner's department has a staff of 60, including 29 investigators and three investigative supervisors, to regulate the alcoholic beverage industry through licensing, education and enforcement of laws and regulations. It also combats youth access to alcohol and tobacco products. Its budget this year is $7.25 million.
"We are limited in what we can do. We do our best," he said.
Steve Humphress, ABC general counsel, said state alcohol laws are some of the most difficult to understand.
He noted that the late Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Charles M. Leibson, in a 1985 case, described Kentucky's alcohol laws as a "maze of obscure statutory language," which were "confusing at best" and whose meaning was "anybody's guess."
"That's still the case," he said.
Doehner and Humphress are pleased that Beshear created a task force this summer to try to modernize and streamline Kentucky's laws.
It is to hold the first of three public forums Thursday in Frankfort.
"Many groups, including licensees, state regulators, law enforcement and private citizens, have called for statutory reform of our alcoholic beverage laws. They agree that Kentucky's current laws do not adequately account for a 21st-century economy and standard of law," Beshear said in announcing the Governor's Task Force on the Study of Kentucky's Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws last month.
The 20-member task force, headed by Public Protection Secretary Bob Vance, is to report its recommendations to Beshear in January for possible consideration during the 2013 General Assembly.
Why are Kentucky's alcohol laws so confusing?
Politics, said ABC officials Doehner and Humphress.
Humphress noted that the issue of alcohol sales has divided Kentucky and the nation for years.
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919 prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. But a few years later, in December 1933, the political winds changed and the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th and ended the so-called Prohibition Era.
The 21st Amendment is unique among the 27 amendments of the U.S. Constitution for being the only one to repeal a previous amendment.
But the issue of alcoholic beverage sales remained political even after Prohibition, Humphress said.
The local option election laws arose because some communities wanted alcohol sales and others did not, he said.
"Some legislators from dry territories are reluctant to vote for any bill dealing with alcoholic beverages or will only vote for bills with a very restrictive service," said Humphress.
"As a result, the alcoholic beverage control laws are a patchwork of sometimes conflicting provisions."
Daniel Meyer, executive secretary and general counsel of the Louisville-based Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Kentucky, said Beshear's task force, of which he is a member, is "greatly needed."
"Our local option election laws are weird. There are so many licenses to sell alcoholic beverages. That needs streamlining. There's definitely room for improvement in our laws," he said.
The law dealing with the sale of wine and liquor in pharmacies and grocery stores dates to Prohibition, when prescriptions could be obtained to buy alcohol at drug stores, said Meyer.
The sales were restricted in grocery stores, he said, because the thought was that minors are often in grocery stores and should not be exposed to booze.
Currently in Kentucky, locations where alcohol sales are allowed, beer — but not wine or spirits — may be sold in grocery stores. Grocery stores, however, may get a license to sell wine and liquor if they provide a separate entrance to that part of the store, where minors are not allowed to work. A store employee of legal age also is required to conduct beer sales.
Eric Gregory, president of the Frankfort-based Kentucky Distillers Association and a member of Beshear's task force, said he understands that consumers and businesses might be confused by the state's web of alcohol laws.
"They have been together in a piecemeal fashion," he said. "There's a lot of confusion and uncertainty, especially with the various types of licenses and local option elections. I hope the task force can come up with some recommendations to make it easier on consumers and the alcoholic beverage industry."
Gene McLean, executive director of the Kentucky Beer Wholesalers Association, which also has a spot on the task force, said he thinks the panel will focus on simplifying local option election laws and licensing.
"The state laws are complicated," he said. "It's always good to review statutes that have been in place for a long time."
Jack Brammer: (859) 231-1302. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.