House gives initial approval to bill changing liquor laws

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(Source: MGN Online) (Source: MGN Online)

The Circle K chain and other convenience stores are pushing legislation to expand where they can sell liquor while making it harder for Arizona residents to prevent them moving into their neighborhoods.

State lawmakers curtailed some of the more disputed provisions in the proposals last week. But neighborhood activists and Democratic lawmakers say those moves aren't sufficient.

House Bill 2359 increases the number of residents needed to request a hearing to protest a liquor-license application from one to 10 people living within a mile of the proposed location. Originally, the bill required at least 5 percent of the local population to get a hearing, but that provision was amended in the Senate.

Mike Williams, a lobbyist representing Circle K, said the current proposal limits the number of state liquor board hearings, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

State liquor board hearings have steadily declined in the last four years, from 107 in the 2010 budget year that began June 30, to just 42 in the 2014 budget year, according to Arizona Department of Liquor statistics. During that time, the department issued more than 5,700 licenses.

The department cites several factors for the decrease, including legislative changes, department leadership and staff efforts.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said finding at least 10 residents to protest the application ensures there is a real concern before conducting a hearing. "If you can't get 10 people to say this could be a problem, let's have a hearing, I seriously wonder if it really is an issue," he said.

Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said the bill could have a greater impact on poor communities. "A lot of these liquor establishments that go up that do receive some opposition from the community take place in a lot of the poor neighborhoods where it's difficult to find people because they are working two jobs," he said.

The bill as amended also makes exceptions for tribal councils to protest liquor-license applications within three miles of tribal lands because of problems the stores create for Native American communities.

"This bill has implications and consequences that are quite different on the Indian reservations that I represent," said Rep. Albert Hale, D-Ganado. "You see a lot of fatalities involving vehicles because they are getting drunk off the reservation and going back to the reservation."

The bill passed through the House on a 33-25 vote and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Another proposal making its way through the House allows convenience stores that meet certain requirements to sell liquor within 300 feet of a school or church. To meet the requirements, stores must offer fresh produce, have 4,500 square feet of space covered by a roof and earn less than 60 percent of their revenue from liquor sales.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the bill still allows communities to make decisions about where the stores can locate.

Walt Gray, a neighborhood activist from Maryvale, said it's concerning that the Legislature would expand liquor sales in vulnerable communities, especially near schools and churches. "Alcohol in vulnerable communities is a very dangerous thing," he said.

The bill received initial approval in the House on Thursday. It now awaits a formal vote.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

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