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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 06, 2017 1:00 am

Rules for alcohol law panel stringent

No gifts for members; campaigns exempt

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – There are no lobbyists on the newly created Alcohol Code Revision Commission. No one with an ownership interest in an alcohol license. And providing gifts or entertainment for the members is banned.

Those are the rules for the new panel charged with making recommendations for changing Indiana's Prohibition-era retail rules on alcohol sales.

But one major thing is still allowed – campaign contributions. The eight legislative members of the panel can continue to accept donations from all sides of the fight. And some of them have long histories of being funded by alcohol interests.

The lawmakers on the commission have collected at least $200,000 from all sides of the alcohol industry. The Journal Gazette tally is a minimum, based on contributions from major trade groups and key interested parties. Donations from individual businesses and owners affected by alcohol law might not be captured in the amount.

Much of the money was given in recent years, but some contributions are more than a decade old.

“They have made their voices heard loudly through the years by writing big checks,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for the government accountability group Common Cause Indiana. “It would be difficult to find any legislator who hasn't taken some money from the alcohol lobby.”

She did, however, applaud “legislative leadership for recognizing that appearances matter, that these types of ways to influence the policy making process should be kept at arm's length.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he doesn't believe campaign donations have any impact on public policy, noting that both sides contribute politically.

He said it would be unconstitutional to ban donations from those in the alcohol industry even though that's what is done for those with gambling licenses.

Bosma and Fort Wayne Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the additional restrictions on the committee were necessary because alcohol is a regulated product and the issue is a high-profile one.

The gift or entertainment prohibition was added because, while legislators and lobbyists generally have to report such spending, there is no similar requirement for the four lay members on the panel. Therefore, all such gifts were banned for the duration of the two-year committee. This includes, for instance, free sporting event tickets.

“They can go to lunch together, but the legislator can pay for their own,” Bosma said.

Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime observer of the General Assembly who runs the weekly newsletter Indiana Legislative Insight, said the gift ban might be going a bit far, but he said current disclosure rules are a bit opaque.

“It sends a good message to the public,” he said.

Sen. Ron Alting, R-West Lafayette, leads the fundraising pack, collecting at least $93,000 from those on varying sides of alcohol issues. It's not surprising, though, given that he chairs the Senate Public Policy Committee, which handles all alcohol legislation.

About a third of those contributions come directly from the package liquor store industry, which has long fought against allowing carryout sales on Sundays or giving other retailers the right to sell cold beer for carryout.

Those two issues will likely top the new commission's agenda this year after Ricker's convenience stores unexpectedly received a restaurant license that also allowed the selling of carryout cold beer.

Other alcohol issues, such as the state's complicated three-tier distribution system, could be tackled next summer by the panel.

Alting, a Sunday sales skeptic, did not respond to several attempts to reach him for comment.

Behind Alting in contributions is Fort Wayne Democrat Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has collected at least $32,000 since 2007. More than half came from the liquor industry. But he also has significant contributions from the Beer Industry PAC.

His total is related to his role as the ranking minority member of the House Public Policy Committee, which handles alcohol bills.

“You can't read votes into donations,” GiaQuinta said, saying that he has gotten contributions from all sides.

It goes back to the old argument of what comes first – do contributions influence lawmakers' votes, or do their votes attract contributions?

Another area member on the panel is Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, who has taken at least $12,700 in alcohol-related donations.

“I'm one who is influenced by the process and my constituents – not by who's on my campaign finance report,” he said.

Lehman and GiaQuinta have in the past favored strict regulations on the availability of liquor. They voted for a Sunday sales bill in 2015, but it would have required grocery and drug stores to more tightly control liquor – such as putting it behind the counter and designating an alcohol-only part of the store.

“It is a controlled product, so it can't be 100 percent 'throw the gates open,'” Lehman said. “There has to be some restraints. We are looking for a balance.”

Other contribution totals for those on the committee are at least $2,700 for Sen. Eric Bassler; $11,850 for Sen. Karen Tallian; $5,000 for Sen. Lonnie Randolph; $6,000 for Auburn Rep. Ben Smaltz; and $25,000 for Rep. Terri Austin.

Everyone has their own idea of what will be a successful panel – and that depends on the recommendations.

Feigenbaum said he expects that an understanding of changes in consumer markets and attitudes will likely prevail on several key issues.

“When you see some states legalizing marijuana, you have to wonder if we want to continue prohibitions and regulations on alcohol,” he said. “They will do something, but we don't know what that something will be.”

History might be a guide. Lawmakers set up a similar two-year panel to tackle alcohol regulation in 2008 and 2009. The group voted against allowing Sunday sales. And the one committee recommendation that passed unanimously was to deny efforts to expand the sale of cold beer beyond package liquor stores.

One legislative change that resulted from that committee was mandatory identification checks for alcohol sales, which caused such an uproar that it was reversed the next year.

nkelly@jg.net