A bill to open-up the sale of wine in Arkansas grocery stores to all producers, rather just small vineyards, fell three votes short in the Arkansas House. Liquor store owners lined the House gallery on Monday, opposed to the bill which would open up competition. State Representative Gary Deffenbaugh of Van Buren spoke against the bill. The Republican worried that retailers like WalMart would shut down local stores.
“It’s going to leave those small liquor store owners, they’re going to be stuck in one-owner-ville for the rest of the rest of their life,” said Deffenbaugh. “You understand?”
State Representative Ken Bragg of Sheridan backed the bill. The Republican from a dry county said it’s about embracing free market principles.
“Walmart seems to be the target of a lot of this discussion.” Bragg said. “WalMart has effected a lot of small towns but I can’t think of any other small business in a small town that has been protected specifically because a WalMart came in.”
State Representative Charlie Collins also embraced the free market them popular in the Republican Party. He said current law, which bars non-liquor stores from selling most wines, is a policy that is “holding Arkansas consumers hostage.”
Mirroring a debate on an earlier bill, Collins’s northwest Arkansas colleague Jana Della Rosa of Rogers objected to the bill on the House floor.
“This one is especially hard,” Della Rosa said while noting she’s a legislator near WalMart’s home office. While the second term lawmaker said she too backs free market principles, she said it would be unfair to thrust local liquor store operators into a new regulatory environment so quickly.
“We forced this closed market system and to suddenly expose them…they will die,” said Della Rosa, “I’m not against these ideas but they’ve had no chance to prepare for this.”
Acknowledging a potentially close vote with some GOP members defecting from leadership’s position, Speaker Jeremy Gillam rose to make a rare speech. He urged lawmakers to work to minimize “collateral issues” to help liquor stores transition. But fundamentally Gillam opposed the “little monopoly” on large scale wine sales held by liquor stores. He suggested it was not as revolutionary a change as opponents suggested for grocery stores to expand wine options.
The bill, which also provides tourism support for Arkansas wineries, was part of a deal brokered by WalMart and others. State Rep. Sarah Capp of Ozark said the company agreed to take off the table for eight years alcohol related petition drives targeting dry counties among other areas of sales.
The bill is likely to come back up again for another vote.