County Council Seeks Public Opinion on Potentially Controversial State Alcohol Bills

County Council Seeks Public Opinion on Potentially Controversial State Alcohol Bills

Council on Tuesday deferred taking positions on two Montgomery County-specific proposals

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Montgomery County Council members on Tuesday put off weighing in on controversial state alcohol bills before the public can comment at hearings next week.

The council deferred taking a position on two bills proposed by Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Burtonsville) that would only apply to Montgomery County. One would let customers buy cold beer, cold wine and soda at county-run liquor stores. The other would let the county open  alcohol stores inside  grocery stores.

The county Department of Liquor Control operates 27 liquor stores where it sells room-temperature beer and wine. The agency is not permitted to sell cold beer, wine or soda. This restriction was put in place to encourage customers to buy cold beer and other chilled products at privately owned beer and wine stores in the county.

Private stores in the county, which are required to buy their products wholesale from the Department of Liquor Control (DLC), have protected the arrangement by saying it levels the playing field somewhat between them and the county stores.

“I do think this will be a very controversial issue,” Council President Roger Berliner said. “I’m quite convinced of it.”

County Executive Ike Leggett opposes allowing the county stores to sell cold alcohol and soda and has requested it be deleted from the bill.

Council member Hans Riemer said he supported the measure because changes are underway to allow privately owned stores in the county to sell liquor.

Currently, county stores are the only locations permitted to sell spirits such as vodka, rum and whiskey in the county. However, plans are in the works to begin providing licenses for privately owned stores to sell liquor in the county.

Bob Dorfman, the director of the department, said in October that the DLC is “beginning to organize a task force” to establish criteria for selecting the privately owned stores that could be licensed to sell liquor.

Riemer said this means the longtime compromise between the county and privately owned stores “has been undone” and it’s time to let customers purchase cold beer from the county stores.

Council member George Leventhal said he’d like to wait for the public to weigh in on the proposed change. The council agreed to defer taking a position on the bill until after public hearings take place.

The county’s General Assembly delegation is scheduled to host public hearings next week in Rockville on the local legislation that representatives plan to introduce during the 2018 session. The first hearing is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. and the second one is on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

The council also deferred taking a position on a Luedtke’s proposal to let the DLC open alcohol stores inside grocery stores in the county. The delegate described the proposal as a “store-within-a-store model” in which the county store would operate independently from the grocery store, but would be inside the same building.

Leggett took no position on the proposal.

Leventhal said he supports the idea as a way to provide an exception to the statewide prohibition on selling beer and wine in grocery stores.

Berliner described it as “incredibly controversial” and said it would likely give a significant advantage to the DLC in competing against privately owned beer and wine stores.

Council member Marc Elrich said the bill’s language should be changed to let any alcohol store operator—privately owned or the DLC—open a store inside a grocery store. He said changing the bill would protect the county from being seen as providing “favoritism” to the DLC.

Riemer said residents simply want to buy beer and wine directly from a grocery store—a policy banned in state law as a way to protect small “mom and pop” alcohol stores in the state.

“We want grocery stores to be able to sell beer and wine,” Riemer said. “That’s what our residents want.”

Elrich responded that doing that would generate significant statewide controversy from alcohol store owners who fear losing business to grocery stores.

“I’m not interested in exacerbating that problem,” Elrich said.

The council again agreed to wait until public testimony takes place before taking a position on the proposal.

Council members did agree to support one alcohol-related proposal Tuesday—a bill being pushed by Del. David Moon (D-Takoma Park) and Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) that would let beer and wine stores in the county sell the Japanese spirit Shochu and the Korean spirit Soju.

Beer and wine stores in the county could sell the products as long as they have no more than 24 percent alcohol.

The council agreed to support the proposal without debate. 

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