A bill to let grocers and convenience stores sell high-alcohol suds went flat in committee late Wednesday on a 7-4 vote, with proponents warning they may take the issue straight to voters.
Bill sponsor Rep. Buffie McFadyen, who delivered 66,000 signatures from shoppers favoring expanded strong-beer sales, said she thinks the issue could end up on the 2010 ballot.
"And they will certainly want to include more than just beer," said McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, hinting that wine and spirits could be included in a future initiative.
Like four other states, Colorado sells low-alcohol 3.2 beer in its 381 groceries and 1,225 convenience stores. Two other states this year voted down legislation to expand strong-beer sales into grocery stores.
Debate on Colorado's House Bill 1192 stretched late into the evening, pitting small-business owners against one another and raising questions about public safety.
The legislation would have converted the low-alcohol beer licenses now held by grocers and convenience stores to full-strength beer licenses.
More than 90 witnesses signed up to testify, and the crowd swelled into an overflow room.
On one side, liquor store owners said competition with big supermarkets - many of them in the same shopping complex - would drive them out of business and hurt local beer, wine and spirits producers.
On the other, convenience store franchisees argued that last year's legislation allowing Sunday strong-beer sales dried up their revenue on low-alcohol beer and continue to hurt their business.
Several lawmakers, such as Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, said they were uncomfortable with redrawing the lines between winners and losers.
"Do I believe our liquor laws make sense? No I don't," Rice said. "But if we are going to look at reworking them, it ought to be in a more comprehensive" way.
Liquor store owners, who opposed the bill, estimated that half of them would go out of business if the legislation took effect.
But convenience store owners like Sandip Mali, who borrowed against his home to buy two 7-Elevens in the Denver area, say their businesses will continue to suffer.
He estimates that he has lost about $1,000 out of $6,000 in Sunday sales, including beer and other items he says beer buyers would have purchased, since liquor stores began opening seven days a week.
He wanted the bill to pass "so we can just recapture the losses," he said. "That's all we want. I just want to get back what I've lost."
McFadyen said that the average 3.2 beer outlet, including liquor and convenience stores, sold 31 cases of beer a week for a profit of $124 before Sunday sales. That figure has dropped 23 percent after Sunday sales, she said.
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