INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana liquor store monopoly on retail cold beer sales appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
On Friday, a plurality of the members on Indiana's Alcohol Code Revision Commission agreed that grocery, drug and convenience stores — which already sell warm beer — should be allowed to sell that same product out of a refrigerator.
However, the eight votes in favor of cold beer was one shy of the majority required for the commission to officially recommend the Republican-controlled General Assembly end Indiana's unique practice of regulating beer sales by temperature.
Perhaps more significantly, the seven "no" votes included state Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, and state Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, the chairmen of the Senate and House public policy committees, out of which any cold beer legislation would have to advance to be voted on by either chamber.
Two commissioners were absent from the panel's final meeting of the year.
State Sen. Eric Bassler, R-Washington, the leading commission proponent for cold beer sales, said he expects the failure to recommend changing the law will keep the issue off the agenda when Hoosier lawmakers begin their 10-week annual session Jan. 3.
"If this does not get out of this commission today, it will die," Bassler said. "There will be no further conversation."
State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, who voted against Bassler's cold beer proposal, believes more conversation is exactly what is needed because Indiana is not prepared to handle the likely injuries and fatalities caused by the broader availability of cold beer.
"Always in these chambers we are dealing with the adverse effects of alcohol," Lehman said. "Never have I seen a bill that was positive about the impact of alcohol on our society."
Hoosiers don't seem to mind. A nonpartisan public opinion poll conducted in October found more than six in 10 Hoosiers want to be able to purchase cold beer at locations other than package liquor stores.
That was even higher than the 57 percent who supported legalizing Sunday carry-out alcohol sales, a proposal the commission last month recommended the Legislature enact next year.
The commission chairwoman, former state Sen. Bev Gard, R-Greenfield, said even though cold beer sales isn't an official recommendation, the commission's final report to the Legislature will indicate that more members supported the idea, including her, than opposed it.
That was thanks in part to former LaPorte Superior Judge William Boklund, who changed his "no" vote at the last minute to "yes" in the hope of putting the cold beer issue in front of the General Assembly next year.
The other Region commission member, state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, remained a firm "no" because he said liquor stores need the advantage provided by cold beer exclusivity in order to compete against larger grocery and convenience store chains.
A commission majority did recommend that lawmakers increase the state excise tax rates on beer, wine and liquor by at least 25 percent to raise approximately $14 million for more aggressive enforcement of underage drinking and other Indiana alcohol laws.
State Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said alcohol taxes have not been hiked since 1986, and if the state is going to give Hoosiers added opportunities to purchase carry-out alcohol, such as on Sundays between noon and 8 p.m., then the state likewise needs to beef up its enforcement system.
It also agreed to endorse higher annual permit fees for Indiana businesses that sell alcohol.
In addition, the commission recommended grocery, drug and convenience stores be required to segregate alcohol in one section of their stores, though it would not have to be in a walled-off area.
The panel rejected a proposal for mandatory age verification by all alcohol purchasers after it was reminded that a prior statute requiring Hoosiers of all ages show identification when purchasing alcohol was extremely unpopular and quickly repealed.