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Dunes Action rips SB188; Merritt explains it; Soliday proposes his own IATC bill

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Dunes Action is urging Hoosiers to protest Senate Bill 188, which the organization said could allow increased sales and consumption of alcohol in Indiana state parks.

Introduced by State Sen. James Merritt, R-31st--whose district includes portions of Marion and Hamilton counties and Fort Harrison State Park--the bill would require the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission (IATC) to issue a liquor permit to the Department of Natural Resources on behalf of a state park “if a proper application is made.”

SB 188 more specifically exempts the DNR from “local board investigation and hearing on the application,” from “quota restrictions,” and from “requirements regarding the character of the permit applicant and the location of the permit.”

“This appears to be an attempt to circumvent the normal permitting process,” said Desi Robertson of Dunes Action. “If this bill passes, it would eliminate public input and local board approval for any alcohol permit applied for by the IDNR,” she said. “It looks as if they are trying to undermine local control.”

“The IDNR should not be exempt from the normal application review process,” Robertson added. “This bill would eliminate public notice and public comment in the case of all IDNR liquor applications, and would also reduce the authority of the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission to deny a license.”

More than 500 Northwest Indiana residents attended a public hearing last year to protest the issuance of a liquor license to Pavilion Partners LLC at Indiana Dunes State Park, and more than 1,200 have signed a petition or sent letters to the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission stating their opposition to any reintroduction of alcohol in the park, Robertson noted.

Dunes Action speculated that driving the bill might be a DNR plan to use alcohol sales to paper over funding shortfalls. “We were afraid of this,” said Jim Sweeney of the Porter County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. “The state needs to fund our parks adequately so we don’t have to sell booze or auction off public assets for funding.”

Merritt Explains SB 188

Merritt, for his part, told the Chesterton Tribune that he hadn’t been expecting the “slew” of calls his office received on Thursday from unhappy people in Valparaiso.

“This has struck a nerve,” he conceded. But it’s a nerve whose rawness Merritt said he’s “just barely” acquainted with.

“I have not invested any time in familiarizing myself” with the Pavilion flap, Merritt said. “I have no in-depth understanding of it.” So he was glad to have his colleague in the Senate, Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, brief him. “That was enlightening.”

In fact, Merritt said, the point of the bill is a simple one: “My intent was to make state parks competitive with their competition.”

More specifically, Merritt’s intent is to make the Fort Harrison State Park Inn--with the Garrison Restaurant and Conference Center and the Fort Golf Resort--more competitive with the many restaurants, hotels, and recreation options in the area. “It’s simpler for operations if the state park has the permit and doesn’t have to worry about its caterers getting one,” he said. “The park doesn’t have to worry about insurance and other things. Liquor permits are part of economic development and the simpler economic development is, the better, I think.”

Merritt was emphatic on one point: Northwest Indiana residents who don’t share his view about the value of SB 188 should absolutely contact their legislators and voice their displeasure. “Make sure your representative knows how you feel,” he said. “This bill is not on grease. It still has to come out of committee. It’s not going to skid through to home plate. I’m quite transparent about it. If it’s not popular, it’s not going to pass. Maybe in other parts of the state, people won’t like it. I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, HB 1135

As it happens, the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission is the subject of another bill introduced this session: House Bill 1135, by State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso.

If enacted in its current version, HB 1135 would transfer IATC’s enforcement section--the Indiana Excise Police--from its own table of organization to the Indiana State Police’s.

The bulk of the 27-page bill is comprised of housekeeping matters--salary, PERF, and such, the whole business of disengaging a unit from one bureaucracy and slotting it into another--but the thrust of the bill is clearly articulated on its final page:

*  As of July 1, 2016, “the enforcement officer activity of the [Alcohol and Tobacco Commission] is abolished and all powers, duties, and functions adhering to the enforcement activity of the commission or the chairman of the commission are transferred to the enforcement section [of the Indiana State Police].”

*  “The property and records relating to the enforcement officer activity of the [IATC] are transferred to the enforcement section [of the ISP].”

*  “On July 1, 2016, appropriations made to the alcohol and tobacco commission . . . for enforcement officer activity are transferred to the excise enforcement section of the state police department.”

One thing which the bill would not do is alter, quash, or render uncertain the status of any ruling made by the IATC prior to the bill’s effect date, July 1: “Nothing in this chapter affects a permit . . . issued before July 1, 2016, or a hearing, a proceeding, or an appeal concerning the issuance or denial of a permit begun before July 1, 2016.”

Soliday was out of town today and not available to speak about HB 1135.

 

 

Posted 1/8/2016

 
 
 
 

 

 

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