Alaska on Thursday overhauled its alcohol laws, the biggest reform in 40 years. With the stroke of the pen of Governor Mike Dunleavy and under the fierce gazes of nearly 20 lawmakers, the legislation, sponsored by retired Senate Speaker Peter Mikish, became law in O’Malleys-on-the-Green in Anchorage.
“This is a 10-year journey in preparation and more than 16,000 volunteer hours from the public to turn it into a reality,” Senator Micciche told the audience. “Everyone here will see the results of this hard work, and Alaskans and Alaskan visitors will be the best at it.”
The Senate passed Bill 9 with near-unanimous support in both the House and Senate. Over the past eight sessions, the bill, also known as “Rewriting Title 4” (after the title in Alaska law books that prescribe alcohol laws), seemed to be on the path of imperative traffic. During those same eight years, the bill was due to come up with fewer than the required votes. Each time, the floor of the house was the final resting place for the rewriting effort.
Changes in the law are sweeping, from how events are run (live music is now allowed in breweries) to basic corporate functions (liquor stores can now make deliveries and serve alcohol samples on site). The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which oversees enforcement of alcohol laws, expects the regulatory process to implement Senate Act No. 9 to be the largest package in its history.
Alaskan alcohol laws are notoriously complex and divisive. The history of salon abuse and the state’s boomtown, combined with the highest levels of alcoholism per capita in the state, garnered enough public support in the early 1980s that laws “dried up” some unwanted activity.
This moderation-focused system had the additional effect of stifling newcomers to various Alaskan communities, and creating a lucrative market for existing licensees. Laws enacted in the 1980s could not foresee the enormous popularity of locally brewed beer and local craft distilleries.
As breweries started in cities of all sizes, and restaurants and liquor stores (technically called “pack stores”) looked for expanded practices, the same refrain returned: Do not open Address 4, because then there will be open war with the incumbent. License holders and new entrants to the alcohol industry.
With so many big projects in place, opposition groups came together to make concessions and cut a deal. Alaska CHARR, the lobby primarily representing bars, restaurants, and distributors, has reached an agreement with the Brewers Guild of Alaska, as well as alcohol processing groups that have historically opposed any expansion of alcohol consumption.
This compromise was based on the firm assumption that the laws governing alcohol, written when the state was just over 20 years old, needed a major revision to match the reality of a world with different tastes from the early Reagan era. Staff from local consulting group Agnew-Beck were hired to develop a framework for the rewrite. By 2015, the bill was ready for launch. The coalition approached Senator Mikis, who is now in his third year in the legislature and already has a prominent voice, to lead the initiative.
But the opponents had strong friends in Juno. Bar owners can count on the help of two new students who own their own bars: Democrat Adam Wall of Fairbanks and Republican Louise Stutz of Kodiak, as well as sympathetic ears of Gabriel LeDoux of East Anchorage. That opposition killed Islah in the final hours of the 2016 legislative session.
This process was repeated again in the 2018 session, thanks to LeDoux, Wool, and Stutes being in the majority.
It is known that a poisonous pill was put into the reform bill that would have destroyed breweries. The pill did its job: The bill died before it could be voted on in the House.
By 2020, the hurdles to rewriting Title 4 seemed to have opened. Stutes has committed not to oppose bringing the bill to the ground, and LeDoux has effectively been ostracized due to other actions (LeDoux has been indicted by the Law Department for election fraud, and her trial is scheduled for early next month). Wool was effectively voted out even within his Democratic caucus.
But then the spring of 2020 was disrupted by the arrival of the Covid-19 virus from China. The legislature has done business faster than ever in the state’s history, distributing its members to their counties to wait for the virus to pass. The rewriting of Title 4 was a victim of circumstances.
Nothing was left to chance this time. Although he was now president of the Senate, a position in which personal bills are often considered influence, Senator Micciche set out to rewrite alcohol.
In the final days of the legislative session, the dam broke once and for all. The House of Representatives voted on Senate Bill 9. The Senate approved the House changes hours before the mandatory conclusion of the legislature’s work.
As at the Alaskan Law Celebration read earlier this month, Thursday’s party was filled with an upbeat atmosphere with attendees. Partisan feuds were put aside, with hard-line liberals such as outgoing Representative Ivy Spoonholz and ultra-conservative Senator Roger Holland looking to sign Senate Bill 9. After nearly an hour of photo ops on the green lawn, the party slowly migrated to the club. There were definitely drinks available.