Kansas Lawmakers Vote To Defund Alcohol Regulators

By John Celock

A dispute over what is said to be enforcement of a law that doesn’t exist has led Kansas lawmakers voting to eliminate the state’s alcohol regulation agency.

The House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday morning to eliminate the budget for the Division of Alcohol Beverage Control for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. The vote follows a decision by ABC to fine businesses that allow private individuals to host parties where their guests can bring alcoholic beverages to consume. The issue has mainly centered around stores that provide painting and cooking classes.

“If ABC has time to create new laws to enforce and create sting operations they have far too much money and too much power,” Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), who is pushing the ABC defunding, told The Celock Report. “We are going to put a stop to these actions once and for all. They are treating private business as criminals. These businesses are following a law and doing a legal activity, a very legal activity.”

At the center of the dispute between lawmakers and the alcohol agency is a 1993 state attorney general’s opinion regarding the BYOB laws for alcohol and public events. The state Department of Revenue, which oversees ABC, says alcohol regulators are allowed to enforce a BYOB ban for the private parties under the opinion. Claeys though says that the opinion only covers a business placing a public invitation to a community and allowing those attending a public event to bring alcohol with them. He said that the current case only covers when a private individual rents out the space and invites people to a private party.

“You can’t put an ad in the paper and say bring booze. I can invite my employees to a private space and say bring alcohol,” Claeys said. “That’s how the statute has been interpreted. ABC is reinterpreting that statute. The ‘93 opinion is a separate issue.”

In the 1993 opinion drafted by then state Attorney General Robert Stephan (R), the word guest was meant to define a guest who has a “private or personal invitation. The opinion was drafted in response to a request from the Ford County attorney with relation to public dances being held in the Dodge City area.

“Within the context of K.S.A. 1992 Supp. 41-719(b)(2), which provides an exception to the prohibition against the consumption of alcoholic liquor on private property, in our opinion the word “guest” means a person to whom a private or personal invitation, as opposed to a public announcement, has been extended for hospitality or entertainment,” Stephan wrote.

Claeys said that the wording Stephan’s office used for guest stands up with what he said is why the businesses can hold the BYOB events.

Under the defunding plan, ABC would be closed and the state would save $3.6 million a year for each of the two fiscal years. The plan does not address who would be in charge of alcohol regulation in the event the alcohol agency is closed.

Wednesday’s actions are early in the budget process. The decision to defund ABC would have to be passed by the full House of Representatives and pass the state Senate and clear a conference between both chambers to develop the final budget and survive final votes in both chambers. A final budget defunding ABC would also need to be signed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

Revenue Department spokeswoman Jeannine Koranda stressed to The Celock Report that ABC has been following the law with their enforcement. She said that the agency has been working with lawmakers to develop legislation that would allow the businesses to obtain a permit for the BYOB event instead of a full liquor license.

“The 1993 attorney general’s opinion supports ABC’s position. We have been working for several months to find a compromise with these businesses,” Koranda said. “Early in the session at the request of the chairman of Federal and State Affairs Committee we submitted compromise language to allow the businesses to apply for a permit instead of a license. There are several steps to go before the budget is finalized.”

Claeys disagreed saying that there is no need for legislation. He said he talked to attorneys in the Revisor of Statutes office, which drafts bill for the Legislature, and they told him that a bill would not be needed since the current law allowed the private event BYOB scenario.

“You have businesses who believe that this is the law and has been interpeting this for decades,” he said. “You have the revisor’s office who say a bill is not needed because it is the law and the only people who are rewriting the law are the folks over at ABC.”

Claeys said that when he got the material back from the revisor’s office they noted that local governments have not been enforcing a ban on the BYOB events.

“I trust the folks who have been working on these laws for a number of years. When they send me an email back saying it is already allowed and that’s how businesses and local governments are interpreting it that,” Claeys said. “And local governments have not been conducting sting operations for 20 years. The only people in the wrong is the ABC.”

Claeys said that he has heard ABC’s opinion since the issue first surfaced when enforcements started occurring in recent months.

In the event that ABC is defunded, he said that the next step will be to recreate the agency but one that is business friendly.

“I think you can abolish the agency and bring it back with individuals who will do their jobs correctly,” he said. “You can abolish the agency and come back with an agency that is more responsible for small businesses.”

Claeys vowed to not drop the issue until he sees ABC stop the enforcement.

“I have every intention to hold them accountable until they resolve this issue and stop treating these businesses like criminals,” he said.