Okla. Supreme Ct. upholds wine initiative petition

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- An initiative petition to ask voters if they want to allow grocery stores in the state's largest counties to sell wine was narrowly approved by the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Thursday.

In a 5-4 decision, the state's highest court rejected arguments that the proposal violates the state and U.S. constitutions and said "there is a rational basis for the provisions" within the proposal.

Initiative Petition No. 396 is supported by Oklahomans for Modern Laws and, if approved at the ballot box, would bring about one of the biggest changes to state liquor laws since Prohibition was repealed in 1959 and liquor-by-the-drink was allowed in bars and nightclubs on a county-option basis in 1984.

Currently, the state Constitution restricts the sale of wine almost exclusively to locally-owned, licensed retail package liquor stores, although the state's wineries are permitted to sell their own bottles in their tasting rooms.

"We're pleased with the court's decision. We think it's the right decision," said Lee Slater, the attorney for Oklahomans for Modern Laws.

The group must collect the signatures of 155,216 registered voters to get the issue on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, but Slater said it is unclear if it will have enough time to collect the signatures, have them certified and print the petition's ballot title on election ballots.

If supporters run out of time, the governor can call a special election to consider the issue or it can be placed on the 2014 general election ballot, Slater said.

The measure is opposed by liquor retailers and organizations that believe increasing the number of retail alcohol outlets will increase the opportunity for abuse.

"The court really didn't discuss the issues surrounding the number of alcohol outlets," said attorney Jim Priest, who represents Fighting Addiction Through Education and the Oklahoma Prevention Policy Alliance.

Opponents attacked the proposal on constitutional grounds, but Priest said there is concern that making alcohol more accessible will increase substance abuse and underage drinking in the state.

The proposal would create a new retail wine license to permit the sale of wine by grocery stores, superstores, supermarkets and warehouse clubs that have at least 25,000 square feet of floor space. Convenience stores would be excluded. Wine sales by grocery stores would be restricted to 15 Oklahoma counties with populations of more than 50,000 and would have to be approved in advance in countywide votes.

Supporters have said the measure will make it more convenient to buy a bottle of wine while shoppers buy groceries. But opponents alleged the issue involved multiple subjects in violation of the single-subject rule that applies to constitutional amendments. The rule says ballot initiatives can address just one thing, not several, to avoid misleading voters.

The court's majority opinion, written by Justice Yvonne Kauger, rejected that allegation as well as suggestions that the proposal violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution because it would treat similar entities in different and unfair ways.

In a dissenting opinion, Vice Chief Justice Tom Colbert wrote that a close examination of the measure "demonstrates serious constitutional infirmities which this court has never addressed."

"The economic advantage which the proposed measure would provide to large grocers, most of which are owned by out-of-state corporations, is a radical change from the locally-owned, sole proprietor or partnership approach that the voters of Oklahoma have adopted to regulate the sale of liquor," Colbert said.

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