Updated 4:15 p.m. -- Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday signed a bill that will allow full-strength beer and wine sales at grocery stores.
The law, which creates the most significant changes to Colorado’s liquor laws since Prohibition, aims to avert a costly ballot fight. Grocery chains are mulling a ballot measure that would allow hundreds of grocers to sell full-strength beer and wine as early as next year.
Supporters of the bill prefer the compromise to a ballot measure that they say would put many mom and pop liquor stores out of business.
It will allow grocery and convenience store chains to buy up to 20 liquor licenses, gradually, over a 20-year period. Right now, a company can own no more than one liquor license in the state.
The law allows grocers to end sales of 3.2 percent-only beer – the only kind of beer most can sell now – and begin full-strength booze sales by 2019.
It requires large retailers wishing to sell booze to buy out nearby liquor stores – those located within 1,500 feet of the grocery – first. This was a key selling point to independent liquor stores who were worried about liquor licensed-grocery stores putting them out of business immediately, and with nothing in return.
"In the end, I was persuaded by a majority -- and I think it probably was a significant majority -- of the independent liquor store owners, who wanted us to sign this bill," Hickenlooper said in the state Capitol Friday afternoon.
“They were basically forced into this compromise by a looming threat of a ballot initiative which literally in the course of one vote, they would lose some significant part of what they worked so hard to create," the governor said.
The governor told CPR Tuesday that he was “agonizing” over the decision. He said he wanted to make sure the bill had enough protections in place for independent liquor stores. Hickenlooper himself is a former brew pub owner.
The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support after bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, held lengthy meetings with stakeholders in the final days of the session, in an attempt to reach a compromise.
Steadman said Friday he was "pleasantly surprised" that Hickenlooper signed the bill. But he admitted it wasn't perfect.
"I don't think this is a bill to celebrate," He said. "I think this is a bill that is a relief to an awful lot of people in this state who were uncertain about the future of their business."
"Big corporations from out of state were willing to buy their way on to the ballot and buy a big piece of this market share and put small businesses out of business in the process. And if it didn’t happen this year they were just going to keep coming back and coming back until they won," Steadman said.
Your Choice Colorado, the group behind the ballot question, indicated Friday the fight wasn't over.
"Your Choice Colorado will continue to weigh our options to keep standing by the voters, giving them the ability to make their voices heard amidst this broken system—whether through a legal challenge to this sloppy bill or as planned, taking it to the ballot in 2016," Campaign Manager Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa said in a statement.