The Senate State Affairs Committee voted to hold a controversial liquor license reform bill in committee. If passed, Idaho liquor laws could see their first major revision in 73 years.
The bill authorizes counties and cities to issue liquor licenses to restaurants and hotels. Under present law only the state can issue liquor licenses.
The senate committee voted 6-2 to hold the vote, delaying action in favor of further review. The senator pushing the bill, Jim Rice, is confident the bill will pass with some adjustments.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of the bill that there’s disagreement on,” Sen. Rice said. “I think it’s more of let’s see if we can make a few tweaks and get something that we can have a little more consensus on.”
One of the major sticking points with opponents is the effect the bill will have on existing liquor licenses. Liquor license owners around the state have protested the bill stating that it devalues what they paid for their license. The current system has left would-be license owners on wait-lists for years and has created a secondary market for liquor licenses to be resold, sometimes for more than $100,000.
Idaho Licensed Beverage Association member, and co-owner of One Shot Charlie's, Whitney Hruza, opposes the bill. She is concerned the new legislation would lead to increased competition and a lack of quality control.
Ms. Hruza met Sen. Rice along with a committee selected to review the legislation. Ms. Hruza said that Sen. Rice told the committee that companies will not come into Idaho because they cannot get a liquor license.
“Liquor licenses should cost about $3,000 to [Sen. Rice],” Ms. Hruza said. “How is that going to incentivize business owners to enforce drinking laws and protect their license?”
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise said he understands the frustration felt by Ms. Hruza and others who paid a premium for their liquor license.
“I think what Sen. Rice is trying to do has some merit, and I think that it is time for us to try and get this figured out,” Sen. Winder said. “But I also don’t think it needs to be at the expense of those current license holders,” he said. “We created the problem — we’ve got to figure out a way to solve it.”
License devaluation is not the only issue. According to Ms. Hruza the bill favors corporate interests such as chain restaurants which she fears will damage communities that depend on seasonal tourism.
“It will be corporations and chain restaurants that want to cash in on the good times, and if they decide to close down and leave it won’t matter, because they have 12 other restaurants to profit from.”
Would-be restauranteurs would benefit the most from the new bill. The bill defines a restaurant as an establishment that serves a complete meal. However, what comprises a ‘complete meal’ is undefined.
Under the bill, no new licenses would be issued for bars and nightclubs. Current law states that each incorporated city receives two liquor licenses, and one additional license for every 1,500 people. It would also allow counties to issue liquor licenses to businesses in unincorporated areas.
Bar owners tend to favor the current system because it limits the number of competitors.
“No matter how you look at it I will not have the same volume because people will have more places to get liquor,” Ms. Hruza said. “The quota system promotes stability. There are three other places in town—Harrison can only hold a certain amount of people.”
According to Alcohol Beverage Control there are eight businesses with retail liquor licenses in Benewah County that allow for on-premise consumption.
They belong to Circle H in Tensed and Bobbi’s in Plummer. The rest are in St. Maries; Gem State Bar & Grill, Elks Lodge #1418, Joe’s Bar, Korner Klub and Casa de Oro.
There are 126 licensed businesses listed in Kootenai, three of which are in Harrison proper; Gig’s Landing, One Shot Charlies, and the recently closed Gateway Marina.
As for the role of county and city governments, Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell welcomes the change.
“We’d all like to keep the competition away, but that don’t happen,” Mr. Buell said. “It will make it easier to do business in town. Especially with restaurants more than anything else.”
Sen. Rice said he will meet with opposition groups to seek a compromise solution.
“We’re going to see if we can try to find a way to resolve that and still take care of it this year — this is just a pause,” Sen. Rice said.