ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – With the sun shining on the Anchorage Golf Course, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed Senate Bill 9 into law last Thursday, which will implement sweeping changes to Alaska’s alcohol statutes.
“I just want to thank everyone who worked hard on this,” Dunleavy said to applause, holding up the signed bill for the cameras. “Congratulations, everybody.”
The signing ceremony was far from certain. It took over nine years and several near misses for the bill to pass through the Alaska Legislature at the end of the last legislative session.
Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, has been the bill’s primary sponsor and said it was “an exciting moment” to see it signed into law. He explained that representatives of bars, breweries and public safety organizations spent thousands of hours negotiating a compromise agreement despite having vastly different priorities.
“This is an example of how the political process can work,” Micciche said.
Large parts of the 127-page bill simply reorganize and “modernize” the state’s 40-year-old alcohol statutes, but a focus of several provisions is on public safety.
Tiffany Hall, head of Recover Alaska, spoke at the ceremony and said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska had been recording deaths by alcohol at twice the national average. During the pandemic, Alaska’s rates have shot up by 31%.
The bill strives to limit underage drinking through better education. It changes how penalties for several alcohol violations are issued with the goal of making them more effective and it also implements tracking of by-mail and online alcohol sales into small communities with hopes to end bootlegging.
The legislation updates alcohol licenses in a way that better matches how Alaskans drink, supporters say. Breweries will be able to buy a license and operate like a traditional bar that serves food, and bar owners will be able to apply for a license to brew their own beer.
Those changes are set to come into effect on Jan. 1 of 2024, once the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office writes and adopts new regulations. Alaskans who enjoy visiting brewery taprooms will also need to wait until then to see changes in how they can operate:
- Tasting rooms will then be able to open at 9 am and stop serving alcohol at 9 pm, instead of 8 pm
- They will be able to hold four live music concerts each year.
- Fundraisers, brewery tours and art shows at tasting rooms will be set in statute and can’t be changed by regulation.
- The 36-ounce daily drink limit at breweries will stay unchanged
Lee Ellis, president of the Alaska Brewers Guild, was a key figure in the negotiations and said it was a “huge accomplishment” and a relief to see the bill signed into law. He runs Midnight Sun Brewing Co. in Anchorage and is interested in applying for the new food-serving bar license.
“I think that would be more fun to have that kind of license that allows a little bit more freedom,” he said.
One aspect of the bill that has attracted questions on its fairness is on population limits for new taproom licenses; they will be limited to one per 9,000 people in communities across Alaska. Ellis described that as a “give” to come to a strong agreement between a diverse group of stakeholders.
The long-running disputes between traditional bar owners and brewers have colloquially been known as “the bar wars.” After almost a decade, Micciche is prepared to call a permanent ceasefire.
“The bar wars are over,” he said after the signing ceremony. “I think you’re going to see people coming together, and that’s what this whole bill is about.”
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