Colorado alcohol debate still bubbling, despite new compromise law from last year

"I am concerned this bill will lead to further decline of small independent businesses," said Democratic Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver, arguing in vain this week to have the Wal-Mart change removed from the bill.

DENVER | Less than a year after Colorado made its biggest alcohol change since the end of Prohibition by allowing more grocers to sell full-strength beer, the state is once again debating where alcohol should be sold.

A bill moving through the state Senate would allow more Wal-Marts and other big-box stores to sell liquor, not just beer and wine.

The Senate delayed a vote Tuesday on liquor in Wal-Mart.

The delay gives Walmart and its allies an extra day to corral support for the change, calling it a simple update to last year’s alcohol law to expand sales.

Critics of the change say that last year’s hard-fought alcohol compromise is under siege, and that liquor in Walmart could devastate family-owned liquor stores.

“I am concerned this bill will lead to further decline of small independent businesses,” said Democratic Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver, arguing in vain this week to have the Wal-Mart change removed from the bill.

The booze-in-Wal-Mart debate isn’t partisan. The sponsor of the change sits right next to Aguilar on the Democratic side of the Senate.

“It’s a technical cleanup bill that we need to pass so we can implement what we passed last year,” said Sen. Angela Williams, another Denver Democrat.

Another alcohol bill is also on ice in the Senate.

That measure would have allowed smaller grocers, those without a pharmacy, to compete in the new alcohol field, too. A Senate committee rejected the bill Monday, though Senate leaders say a revised version may yet appear.

In other words, it’s far too soon to say how this alcohol debate will shake out.

But voters should know that changes are likely to the new alcohol law. The law set up a 20-year period for grocers to slowly acquire liquor licenses, sometimes by paying for those held by neighboring liquor stores.

By 2037, Colorado will repeal its unusual limits on how many licenses a company or chain may hold to sell alcohol. The new law also ends a requirement that most grocers sell only “near-beer,” water-downed versions of common brews.