March 10, 2021

Liquor law overhaul heads to governor

After extensive changes through a series of amendments, the New Mexico Senate on Tuesday approved a bill aimed at allowing alcohol delivery and making other significant changes to the state’s liquor laws by a 29-11 vote. 

Shortly after the Senate passed HB 255, the House voted to concur with the changes made in the Senate, which means the bill now heads to the governor’s desk. 

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, presented the bill on behalf of the House sponsor, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. 

Throughout the hours-long debate and amendment process, Ivey-Soto said the bill was one way for New Mexico to change its “relationship with alcohol.” 

“This has been a long time coming,” Ivey-Soto said just before the vote. “It’s been 40 years coming for us to have this discussion. It’s been 40 years coming for people to be able to say, ‘You know, here’s something that’s affected my constituents. Here’s something that I’ve wanted to do something about. Here’s something where we can make a change.”

Besides allowing for alcohol deliveries, the original intention of the bill was to fix a decades-old system that inadvertently put an inflated monetary value on licenses to sell liquor by the drink. Current law allows for only a finite number of those licenses and as a result, license holders can sell theirs for upwards of $500,000. HB 255, if signed, would add a new class of licenses that would allow restaurants to serve hard alcohol, similar to the current beer and wine licenses. 

But through a series of amendments, the bill now expands liquor sales on Sundays, bans the sales of miniature bottles of liquor and would give McKinley County the option to ban liquor sales at convenience stores. 

The amendment to expand liquor sales on Sundays came from Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, and was approved by the body unanimously. Current law limits packaged alcohol sales on Sunday from noon to midnight and on-site sales from 11 a.m. to midnight. Pirtle called the current law “outdated” and said his amendment “really fits with what this bill is about.”

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, successfully added an amendment to the bill that would ban the sale of liquor sold in containers smaller than three ounces, or what is commonly referred to as minis. Lopez said the amendment was a way to curb purchases of small amounts of liquor that are easy to consume before driving. 

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said he understood and backed Lopez’s motive, but that eliminating a specific size of bottle will not solve the state’s drinking and driving problem. 

“If somebody wants to have a drink after work and they’re willing to drive while drinking, they’ll just buy the smallest size that we leave available,” Ortiz y Pino said. “In two years, we have to come back and outlaw half-pint bottles or pint bottles. It just seems like outlawing the size of the container is not going to get at the problem that we have with driving and drinking.”

Republicans were somewhat split on the issue of minis.

Pirtle said he fully supported the amendment and said he has seen people pour minis into fountain sodas as gas stations and leave in their car. And while Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he despises seeing empty mini bottles on the side of the road, he said he shared the concern of Ortiz y Pino. 

Possibly the most impactful amendment came from Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who represents an area with a history of trying to control alcohol consumption. His father is part of New Mexico history; Muñoz’s father was the mayor of Gallup and made headlines when he led a march from his city to Santa Fe to advocate for changes to the state’s liquor laws. 

Muñoz’s amendment would specifically allow McKinley County to ban liquor sales at gas stations and convenience stores. 

“A lot of my friends, a lot of their families, a lot of their sons, a lot of their daughters are affected and have died by alcohol,” Muñoz said. 

There was some debate by other members who said they were concerned that other communities may also want to have that option. But Muñoz said making statewide changes would be too big of a task and stressed that McKinley County has a very serious problem.

“When you take the number of liquor licenses per capita, in that county, that kills people, that literally kills people, then you have to make reactive decisions. Decisions that my father made,” Muñoz said. “When he walked, and they told him, the liquor industry was going to kill him. We had our phone tapped by the FBI, so we can signal them when somebody called and made a death threat.”

While many Republicans criticized the bill early on in the process, calling it unfair to current liquor license holders, the House Republican leadership praised the final product. 

House Minority Whip and HB 255 co-sponsor Rod Montoya of Farmington called the bill a “desperately needed economic driver” in a statement. 

“This is a win for so many rural communities and will help our economy grow,” Montoya said.