Liquor license reform bill draws local opposition

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Some liquor license-holders in Kootenai County and throughout the state are lining up, along with Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, to oppose a comprehensive liquor license reform bill proposed by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell.

Scheduled for a hearing today by the State Senate Affairs Committee in Boise, Rice’s proposal would, among other things, end the state’s 70-year-old quota system of issuing liquor licenses and allow cities and counties to issue liquor licenses, if they choose to.

Rice said, when he introduced the bill on Jan. 30, that the current system “has created some rather interesting dynamics throughout our state.”

Committee chair, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said the licensing system now in place is unfair to small businesses and makes it more difficult for small restaurants to have liquor licenses.

Tom Robb, owner of the Iron Horse Bar & Grill on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene, disagrees.

“It just takes the little guy right out of it,” Robb said.

Liquor licenses are now issued by the state based on a city’s population with two per city and one additional license for every 1,500 residents. The demand has outpaced growth, however, leading to long waiting lists for liquor licenses, and because the state-issued licenses are transferable and can be sold or leased, the prices of these in-demand commodities have skyrocketed.

Under Rice’s bill, existing state-issued liquor licenses would be grandfathered in and would remain transferable, but could be sold statewide, rather than only within the city.

Rice told the Senate Affairs Committee that the transferability would help the state-issued licenses retain some value under the new system as licenses issued by cities and counties would not be transferable.

The new legislation also calls for increased server training for those who sell alcohol.

Wolfinger was not available for comment, but he wrote a review of the bill that he shared with Whitney Hruza, the owner of One Shot Charlie’s in Harrison and a district director for the Idaho Licensed Beverage Association.

“Some of the major overall concerns are that there will be a gluttony of liquor licensed establishments throughout the state,” Wolfinger wrote. “This will do one of two things. It will either reduce the volume of sales from current establishments, negatively impacting businesses and therefore the overall economy, or it will create more opportunity for people to drink liquor, leading to more health issues, driving under the influence issues, etc. Either way, this is a bad idea.”

The Idaho Licensed Beverage Association, representing liquor license-holders from throughout the state, said in a position statement that it will not endorse the bill because it would devalue Idaho businesses while increasing problems with alcohol-related abuse.

“SB 1040 is a flawed piece of legislation with potential for a multitude of seriously dangerous, unforeseen consequences,” said the association’s statement.

The association and Hruza share the same concerns Wolfinger has.

“Additionally, if this bill were to pass, it would create a patchwork of regulations across the state that would be different, not only from city to city or city to county, but it would create different regulations for state-licensed establishments as opposed to municipal-licensed establishments,” Wolfinger wrote, in his review.

Hruza said it’s the list system that needs to be fixed, not the quota system. She said Rice’s bill favors developers and others who want to use chain restaurants as anchor stores for new shopping centers.

“This bill was written for big business,” she said. “If anyone and everyone can sell liquor … it’s just going to be dangerous.”

Rice and other proponents of the proposed change say the new legislation will not create a glut of liquor licenses because local governments will decide how many should be issued within a municipality.

He told the Senate Affairs Committee that by giving local control of liquor licenses, the citizens of cities can petition their city councils if they disagree with a decision about the licensing.

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