Liquor licenses: Legislative solutions for limited licenses moving forward

SHERIDAN — At least one bill designed to increase liquor license availability in Wyoming is moving forward to the 2023 legislative session, with others potentially on the way.

During its Aug. 25 meeting in Casper, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee considered four liquor-license-related bills. One of those bills was forwarded to the legislative session while two others were advanced to the committee’s next meeting for further discussion. The fourth bill was killed by the committee.

The bill draft that advanced was 23LSO-0119. The draft gradually increases the number of bar and grill licenses — the licenses allowing a bar area to be used within a restaurant establishment — over the next decade until finally eliminating the use of the population-based formula for those licenses in 2033.

Currently, the number of available bar and grill licenses is limited by community population, Sheridan City Clerk Cecilia Good wrote in an Aug. 1 Sheridan City Administrator’s Report, with the City of Sheridan only having six licenses available.

Wyoming Liquor Association executive director Mike Moser spoke in favor of the bill and said it would be an ideal way to address the need for more liquor licenses throughout the state.

“I think this is how we do liquor law — we do it in gradual measures,” Moser said. “This gets us where we want to go.”

The bill, as originally drafted, ended the use of restaurant liquor licenses — which are granted to restaurants serving alcohol without an attached bar or lounge —in conjunction with the expansion of bar and grill licenses.

However, Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, passed an amendment keeping restaurant liquor licenses in place for the time being. While they could be removed from the statute eventually, Scott recommended waiting to see how the expansion of bar and grill licenses went before making any final decisions.

Two additional bill drafts moved forward for continued consideration at the committee’s next meeting in October. The first of these introduces a new type of license: the tavern and entertainment liquor license.

The proposed bill 23LSO-0118 would allow “entertainment” venues — like arcades, indoor sport simulation venues and movie theaters — to serve alcohol as long as they collect 60% of their revenue from the “entertainment” and no more than 40% from alcohol.

The bill received support from many elected officials including Sheridan Mayor Rich Bridger.

“I think what we’re searching for with this particular bill is just some flexibility,” Bridger said. “…We’re looking for something that, when the city has a unique business opportunity, we have a license that can facilitate that.”

Laramie mayor Paul Weaver was also in favor of the new type of license.

“Over the last decade, the city of Laramie has had some creative and innovative business opportunities we just haven’t been able to help or encourage, because there simply was no way to issue them any type of license (under the current system),” Weaver said. “That’s not a great economic development situation and it’s not a great business situation, and I think it would be great for cities and towns to have a few more options for up-and-coming business people and their ideas.”

Moser was one of the most vocal opponents of the bill arguing the term “entertainment” was too vague and unclear.

Legislators agreed and proposed several potential fixes to the issue, including an amendment which would allow each city, county and town to decide what qualifies as “entertainment” in their jurisdiction. Another proposed amendment would outline in state statute all the forms of entertainment eligible for the license.

These amendments will be considered at the committee’s October meeting.

Also advancing to the October meeting was 23LSO-0129, which would allow municipalities to set their own retail liquor licenses fees to maximize revenues that could be collected. Currently, the fee is set at $1,500 statewide.

Before the committee’s October meeting, the Legislative Service Office will draft an amendment clarifying that, while there is no limit to how high a community can set its initial liquor license purchase fee, there will be a to-be-determined limit on yearly renewal fees in order to protect businesses from outrageous annual expenses.

“I think we all agree with this bill in concept — we just need to get language we’re all cool with,” Moser said.

The one piece of draft legislation that will not be advancing is 23LSO-0130.

The proposed legislation would have made all future retail liquor licenses after July 1, 2023 non-transferrable following a purchase of a business. This means the license would be reallocated by the local government upon the sale of a business with a license.

While all existing liquor license holders would be grandfathered into the bill, Sen. Cale Case expressed concern about how the bill essentially created “two classes” of license holder: those that could pass liquor licenses on and those that could not.

“I understand protecting existing interests,” Cheyenne businesswoman April Kunz said during public comment. “I don’t understand why you would want to prevent somebody else setting up a long-term interest, potentially within family…The message that (this bill) sends to young people trying to establish a business is the wrong one.”

Liquor licenses are allocated based on a complex population-based formula, and most communities have already allocated most or all of their allotted licenses to local businesses, Tom Montoya with the Wyoming Liquor Division previously told the corporations committee.

For example, Sheridan County had only one unused retail liquor license as of May 2022, in the town of Clearmont. The City of Sheridan, Sheridan County and the towns of Dayton and Ranchester have allocated all their licenses.

As of May 2022, Sheridan County had seven unused bar and grill licenses — two each in the towns of Clearmont, Dayton and Ranchester and one in the county — while the City of Sheridan has allocated all six of its bar and grill licenses.

The scarcity of liquor licenses means they are always in high demand when they become available.

Consider, for example, the recent retail license which became available in Sheridan following the 2020 census. Eleven local businesses applied for the license, which meant there were far more losers than winners in the process.

The corporations committee will continue to discuss ways to improve liquor license availability during its next meeting Oct. 13 and 14. No location has been set for the meeting at this time.


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