FRANKFORT — Kentucky grocery stores are fighting a proposal in this year's state legislature that would block their longtime goal of selling wine and liquor alongside other groceries.
Some stores are distributing fliers to customers, urging them to tell their lawmakers to oppose House Bill 310. A consortium of grocers also ran full-page ads during the weekend against the legislation in newspapers in Lexington, Louisville, Ashland and Owensboro.
The flurry of activity comes after the measure cleared the House Licensing and Occupations Committee on Thursday with only one "no" vote. It now awaits action by the House.
Pushing the bill is a group formed late last year by independent liquor stores called Fighting Alcohol Consumption by Teens, or FACT.
It says alcohol products such as vodka, whiskey and wine should not be sold in stores that allow children and teenagers on the premises. It also wants to protect the so-called "mom-and-pop" liquor stores that would find it difficult to compete against large grocery stores such as Kroger and Meijer.
This latest battle over who may sell booze in Kentucky stems from a federal judge's ruling last summer.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II of Louisville ruled that a Kentucky law prohibiting grocery and convenience stores from selling wine and distilled spirits was unconstitutional. Heyburn, however, suspended his ruling temporarily, giving state lawmakers an opportunity to deal with the issue.
Heyburn said state law "violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause in that it prohibits certain grocery stores, gas stations and others ... from obtaining a license to sell package liquor and wine."
Under current law, grocery stores in areas where alcohol sales are legal may sell beer but not wine or spirits. 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 is required to conduct alcohol sales.
Such requirements do not apply to Kentucky drugstores, which are allowed to sell wine and liquor in wet localities. The legal distinction between pharmacies and grocery stores dates to Prohibition, when prescriptions could be obtained to buy alcohol at drugstores. After Prohibition, sales were restricted in grocery stores over concerns that minors often patronize them and should not be exposed to liquor.
HB 310, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Dennis Keene of Wilder, would make Heyburn's ruling a moot point.
Under the bill, grocery stores and newly-built pharmacies could sell wine and liquor only if they had a separate entrance to an adjoined structure. Pharmacies that already sell wine and liquor could continue to do so.
The measure also specifies that those stores may not allow anyone younger than 21 to enter a business selling distilled spirits or wine unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The proposal is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 13 House members, including House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville.
Keene was not available for comment Monday, but Gary Gerdemann, a spokesman for FACT, said he thought the bill had "a very good chance" to become law.
He said the judge's ruling, if it stands, would let "any retailer who can qualify for a license sell alcohol — gas stations, truck stops, dollar stores, pawn shops, telephone stores, on and on."
"The question is not only do you want grocery stores to sell wine and liquor, but do you want any retailer who can qualify to sell this?" Gerdemann said. "We believe this would create the largest expansion of alcohol sales in Kentucky history."
There are nearly 600 liquor licenses available for purchase in Kentucky, including 62 in Fayette County, he said.
Without HB 310, those would be "snapped up," Gerdemann said, and the only standard for getting a license is that the applicant must not be a felon and must own the business location.
Gerdemann also said his group does not have the money for "the type of Wall Street ad extravaganza" the grocery stores are running.
Ted Mason, executive director of the 350-member Kentucky Grocers Association and Kentucky Association of Convenience Stores, said Gerdemann was incorrect in predicting a huge expansion of alcohol sales without HB 310.
"Throughout the years, all kinds of retailers could have obtained a liquor license, but we've not seen that," Mason said. "We simply believe retailers like grocery stores should have the option to sell wines and spirits in Kentucky, as they do in 35 other states. It's a matter of fairness."
In its newspaper ads, the consortium of grocery stores presented the issue as a question of convenience.
"Wine or spirits with dinner tonight? You might like to pick up your favorite bottle of wine or spirits as you shop at your local grocery store, but you can't," the ads read. "Kentucky remains one of the few states where beer is the only alcohol choice available for grocery shoppers."
Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.