DENVER (AP) — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill Friday to gradually allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, liquor and wine, making the biggest change to state liquor laws since the end of Prohibition.
The law sets up a 20-year period for grocers to slowly acquire liquor licenses, sometimes by paying for those held by neighboring liquor stores.
By 2037, Colorado would repeal its unusual limits on how many licenses a company or chain may hold to sell alcohol. It also would end a requirement that most grocers sell only "near-beer," watered-down versions of common brews.
Colorado's largest grocers say the change will take too long and vow to ask voters this fall for speedier changes.
Hickenlooper recently said he didn't want to see any change to liquor laws to protect the jobs of small store owners. But he signed the measure after meeting with brewers, liquor stores and grocers.
"I was persuaded by the majority of independent liquor store owners," Hickenlooper told reporters Friday afternoon. The store owners feared that voters would approve a measure to immediately allow full-strength beer, wine and liquor in all grocery stores, he said.
"This bill allows a transition period, where all the change doesn't happen overnight," Hickenlooper said.
The state's largest grocers — King Soopers, Safeway and Albertsons — said they may still run multimillion-dollar ballot campaigns this fall to end the "near beer" requirements once and for all. Colorado is one of only 5 states to have "near-beer" in grocery stores.
"Consumers want real beer and wine in the grocery store. They don't want to wait until 2037," said Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa, who is managing the campaign for the Colorado grocers' ballot measure.
Five versions of a ballot measure to allow more groceries to sell full-strength beer have been proposed. Supporters have until August to turn in some 98,000 signatures to get one of them on ballots this fall.
Hickenlooper said Friday he would "loudly" oppose any effort by supermarkets to push for an immediate change because he thinks it would be unfair to small liquor stores who have worked to build their businesses.
"I care about little guys," he said.
Not all liquor stores oppose the bill. Tiffany Lough, co-general manager of the Liquor Mart in Boulder, says it gives the store the opportunity to compete in a larger market because it will be able to sell items like chips that are not allowed under the current law.
"It's putting us on a more level playing field," she said. "We are very excited about this opportunity, and it is the best-case option for local, small business owners in the liquor industry."
Colorado has been debating beer in grocery stores for more than a quarter-century. Voters in 1982 overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to allow full-strength beer in grocery stores. Since then, beer law has become a perennial topic of debate in the state Capitol.
Hickenlooper said the beer measure was his final bill signature of 2016.
Earlier in the day he signed into law measures including a new Office of Fantasy Sports to regulate fantasy online sports leagues that pay jackpots. Other bills that became law include a ban on marijuana edibles shaped like animals, fruits or people — in other words, a bill taking pot gummy bears off shelves — and a requirement that notary publics who serve the Spanish-speaking community tell their clients that they cannot practice immigration law.
Associated Press photographer Brennan Linsley contributed to this report from Boulder.
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt