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Lawmakers OK sweeping overhaul of NM liquor laws

A display shows mini liquor bottles for sale at Kelly’s Liquors in Northeast Albuquerque on Tuesday. State legislation would ban the sale of containers of 3 ounces or less of liquor, unless they are to be consumed on site, such as in a hotel or at a golf course. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico would expand options for alcohol delivery and the sale of mixed drinks at restaurants under a sweeping package of liquor-law changes moving toward passage in the Capitol.

The measure would prohibit the sale of miniatures at convenience stores and broadly reshape a host of New Mexico liquor regulations.

Senators adopted the legislation, House Bill 255, on a 29-11 vote Tuesday after making a series of amendments to the proposal. The House quickly agreed to the Senate amendments, sending the measure next to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

If enacted, the bill would make the most substantial changes to New Mexico liquor laws in 40 years.

“This is reform that’s been a long time coming,” Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque said. The bill “is about changing our relationship with alcohol.”

The proposal would allow package stores to apply for permits to deliver alcoholic drinks to customers’ homes, and restaurants could deliver alcohol with food orders.

It would also establish new licenses intended to make it easier for restaurants to serve spirits and mixed drinks, not just beer and wine.

Several amendments to the bill were approved Tuesday, including:

• Banning the sale of 3-ounce miniatures for off-site consumption. They would still be allowed at golf courses, hotels or other places where they can be consumed on site.

• Prohibiting the sale of hard liquor at convenience stores in McKinley County.

• Stripping from the proposal an earlier plan to impose a 2% tax on retail sales.

• Lifting the prohibition on alcohol sales at stores before 11 a.m. Sunday.

Cody Jones organizes bottles of wine as he helps clean out one of the serving stations at the Noisy Water Winery in Ruidoso. Legislators have approved changes to expand delivery options for alcoholic drinks. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Opposition

The legislation has faced opposition from some holders of liquor licenses under the current system and triggered anxiety about how it might affect the value of their investment in those licenses.

One fear is that the proposal – by making it easier for restaurants to serve liquor – will erode the distinction between bars and restaurants, in addition to damaging the value of the expensive licenses previously required to allow the sale of spirits at a restaurant. How the market will react is uncertain.

“It’s still a bit scary for those people with the ‘legacy’ licenses,” said Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “No matter what you do to this bill, they’re not going to know what the value of their license is until much later. There’s a lot of fear for them.”

Mark Rhodes, an Albuquerque attorney with 30 years of experience in the liquor industry, said he and others in the business are still evaluating the potential impact of all the changes to the legislation.

The six amendments senators approved Tuesday were on top of earlier changes in committees.

Many amendments have come without warning, Rhodes said, and public comment has been limited in committee hearings.

Rhodes is a lobbyist for the New Mexico Package Liquor Association, whose clients are closely watching the bill.

“When you’ve spent your whole life in the liquor industry,” he said, “and you’ve built a business – whether it’s a single restaurant or a chain of convenience stores – it’s very difficult to have people make sweeping changes without any input and without taking public comment.”

Major changes

The wide-ranging debate in the Senate touched on New Mexico’s struggle with driving while intoxicated, deaths from exposure in McKinley County and miniature bottles littering roadways.

Ivey-Soto, who presented the bill to his colleagues in Tuesday’s debate, described the proposed changes as the most significant revisions to liquor laws in 40 years and even more expansive than the ban on drive-up windows 20 years ago.

The proposal won bipartisan support, and opposition didn’t fall along party lines either.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said the legislation has the potential to boost tourism and help an industry hit particularly hard by public health restrictions over the last year.

“Everyone has worked extremely hard on this bill,” Moores said. “This is really going to help out the restaurants and also modernize our liquor laws a bit.”

Supporters said the changes would encourage people to consume food rather than just drink and make it easier to avoid driving to pick up alcohol.

But some legislators said the proposal would do more harm than good.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said he couldn’t support diluting the value of liquor licenses. Some families, he said, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire them.

“There’s a select few license holders that, at the end of the day, should this pass, bear most of the load,” Baca said.

Some of the most vigorous debate came over whether to adopt a provision restricting the sale of liquor at convenience stores in McKinley County.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said the community in northwestern New Mexico – which includes part of the Navajo Nation – needs particular help addressing alcohol problems.

“People are dying in the streets,” Muñoz said. “People are dying in the cold.”

Opponents of the amendment questioned whether it would single out Native Americans.

The provision passed 34-4 and was added to the bill.

The new version of the proposal went back to the House later Tuesday, and the chamber granted final approval to the bill, clearing the way for it to go next to the governor.

“It’s a watershed moment – not just in liquor policy, but politics in New Mexico that policymakers will choose the people’s interest over a special interest,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the administration would need time to evaluate the amendments but “has been supportive of the overriding concept throughout.”

The measure is sponsored by a mix of Democrats and Republicans – Ivey-Soto and Reps. Maestas and Dayan Hochman-Vigil, all Albuquerque Democrats, and House Minority Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington and Rep. Joshua Hernandez of Rio Rancho, both Republicans.


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