OKLAHOMA CITY — State Sen. Stephanie Bice envisions a day when one of her constituents can drive to a liquor store, open a refrigerated case and grab a six-pack of chilled beer.
If she succeeds in making that happen, Bice will have done something few Oklahoma lawmakers have accomplished since the end of Prohibition — changing the state's antiquated liquor laws.
“It has become very apparent that we have not been able to keep up with the changes that have occurred as it relates to the beverage laws,” said Bice, a freshman senator who represents parts of Oklahoma and Canadian counties.
Oklahoma, after all, has earned a reputation for its strict limits on liquor.
While Prohibition ended in most of the country in 1933, Oklahomans waited 26 years before giving in and allowing alcohol. While a number of states have loosened restrictions on Sunday alcohol sales, not so Oklahoma. This state stands firm in prohibiting sales on Sundays and holidays.
And Oklahoma remains one of just five states that still have laws encouraging sales of low-point beer — brewed with 3.2 alcohol content by weight, or about 4 percent by volume — over the strong stuff.
So, while you can buy chilled, low-point beer down at the grocery or corner convenience store, regular strength beer such as the Budweiser sold in most parts of the country (5 percent by volume) or Miller High Life (4.6 percent) can only be had at a liquor store — at room temperature.
Bice said she's filed a cold beer bill, allowing liquor stores to refrigerate their regular strength brew, because it doesn't require changing the state Constitution, which holds most of the state's iron clad liquor laws.
It needs only a thumbs up from her peers and, ultimately, a swipe of the pen by Gov. Mary Fallin.
But, if history is any guide, making even that relatively modest change will be a tall order.
Nobody knows better than House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman, a Republican from Fairview, who has spent the past decade pushing unsuccessfully for modernized wine laws important to his district, home to some of the state's wineries.
Before that, his predecessor from Fairview worked on it, and before that it was his predecessor’s predecessor.
Still the liquor laws remain intact.
“Trying to continue to find ways to modernize our alcohol statutes, I think, has been an ongoing discussion for a long time in this building, and I think that’s an appropriate discussion for us to have, particularly as it relates to the growing industry in Oklahoma for grapes as well as wineries,” Hickman said.
Sen. Brian Bingman, the Senate's president pro tempore, said most alcohol laws remain intact because they're so closely intertwined that changing one affects them all. And no significant changes can be made to those baked into the state Constitution without a referendum.
Bingman said chatter in the Capitol now seems focused on expanding liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores, to allow the "one-stop shopping" experience common in other states.
Making that happen could be a battle, too, against a set of laws that can be distilled to a single descriptor, according to Kevin Hall, director of the Tulsa-based grassroots group League of Oklahomans for Change in Alcohol Laws.
“My favorite word is archaic,” said Hall, who teaches church history, makes soap for a living and campaigns to pour out Oklahoma's low-point beer in exchange for a "total modernization” of liquor laws.
The status quo, he argues, hampers job creation and the state’s “beer tourism” industry.
“I don’t see any advantages to this silly distinction between strong point and weak point,” he said. “We unfortunately put all this into our Constitution, and it makes for a lot of difficulty to get it out of there.”
Sentiment to change alcohol laws deemed as outdated isn't unique to Oklahoma, said David J. Hanson, professor emeritus at State University of New York at Potsdam, who spent a career studying liquor trends.
“We have these conflicting views, and so you have shifting political power. Laws get passed that might be sort of pro-alcohol, and you have anti-alcohol laws that might … remain on the books," he said.
Those in Oklahoma were written at a time when it was deemed more appropriate to be in church than to be tempted by the Devil's brew.
Advocates of low-point beer believed “it would be harder to become intoxicated because you’d have to consume so much beer,” Hanson said. “People thought of it as a safer drink you might say.”
Even if those laws seem antiquated, Hanson said emotions still run high in places that face decisions about liquor laws.
One side usually finds advocates arguing that booze is an economic boon. Opponents, he said, usually warn that the community is one step from “going to hell in a handbag."
In reality, neither happens, he said. Areas that liberalize sales don’t see a big economic impact, while ones that restrict sales often report more alcohol-related fatalities on their roads because they've forced people who want to drink to drive further to do it.
Even Oklahoma's food and beverage groups are torn about the liquor laws, supporting some changes but rejecting others, often based on self-interest.
Bice said “there has really been an outpouring of support” for her cold beer bill, though some grocery and convenience stores are opposed to what they believe could stir up more competition from liquor stores.
The measure passed through the Senate this week, but Democratic caucus leaders said Thursday the bill is dead until Bice holds an interim study on the matter this summer.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman said he believes Bice is fast learning what many lawmakers before her have learned: Some Oklahomans and interest groups have a strong desire in keeping liquor laws intact despite well-intentioned efforts to change them.
He said lawmakers repeatedly promise to tackle the issue next year.
"That next year never comes," Inman said, adding that such legislation is "long overdue."
The House passed a proposal to allow wineries to make direct shipments, but it remains uncertain whether it has momentum to survive the rest of the process.
In the meantime, Oklahomans will buy their strong beer warm.
“We get asked for cold beer all the time by customers from Kansas and other states,” Becky McCray, who owns a liquor store in Alva, told legislators earlier this year. “We’re almost ashamed to explain it’s still illegal in Oklahoma.”