Tinkering, not transformation, likely to be recommendation for Indiana alcohol law changes

Members of the Alcohol Code Revision Commission discuss possible Indiana alcohol law changes during a meeting Friday in the House chamber. The panel is set to vote Sept. 28 on its final recommendations to the General Assembly.

INDIANAPOLIS — A state task force charged with reviewing every aspect of Indiana's alcohol laws appears likely to end its two-year project this month without recommending major reforms to the General Assembly.

The Alcohol Code Revision Commission hashed out preliminary recommendations Friday as a prelude to its Sept. 28 meeting where the 17-member panel will identify the alcohol policy changes it believes Hoosier lawmakers should enact during the legislative session that begins in January.

Those recommendations are likely to include tinkering with the population-based quota system to give restaurants in growing communities the opportunity to secure alcohol sale permits — even when the local resident count normally would not justify it.

Munster, in particular, could benefit from that change, depending on how the policy is written and whether the Republican-controlled General Assembly ultimately approves it.

The town was stymied earlier this year when it sought legislative permission to issue three new permits for on-premises alcohol consumption at Centennial Village restaurants on top of the standard allotment of alcohol sale permits available in Munster.

Commissioner Randall Woodruff, an Anderson attorney, suggested the best way to help Munster, and every other Indiana locality, would be to scrap the quota system altogether, and let the free market determine how many alcohol retailers in a community are too many.

"It seems to me the evil is the quota system," Woodruff said. "I don't think it's necessary and I don't think it works."

Woodruff pointed out that ending quotas also would address the 745 alcohol sale permits currently held in escrow by individuals supposedly intending to start a business, but who often are just hoarding permits so their existing businesses face no competition.

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Three state lawmakers, including the chairmen of the House and Senate committees responsible for alcohol policy, rejected the idea of eliminating the quota system because they said alcohol is a dangerous drug that cannot simply be treated like any other commodity.

State Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, chairman of the House Public Policy Committee, said it's undisputed that increasing the outlet density of alcohol leads to more drunk driving incidents, increased sexual assaults and numerous other societal ills.

"It's a very dangerous proposition," he said in explaining his preference to instead fix the quota system and escrow process.

The commission also is likely to recommend tougher penalties, such as higher fines and increased permit fees, for alcohol retailers who sell to minors, as well as for individuals under age 21 who consume alcohol. 

It is not expected to take a position on whether Indiana should allow retailers, other than package liquor stores, to sell refrigerated beer.

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