Kansas close to repealing 26-year ban of happy hour, but not in time for cheap post-caucus cocktails

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

When a winner is declared Saturday in the Republican presidential caucuses in Kansas, one of the 2012 candidates--and his supporters--will be ready to celebrate. But even though the results are expected to be announced at around 5 p.m. local time, the winning campaign will have to pay full price for any celebratory toasts.

For 26 years, Kansas has banned happy hour. The after-work tradition, during which beleaguered co-workers drown their sorrows with discounted brews, was outlawed in 1985 after some worried it encouraged drunk driving and binge drinking. The Kansas House and Senate have each passed a repeal of the ban, but the details still need to be worked out in a conference committee, and then the governor would have to sign the bill. (Sorry, thirsty, unpaid campaign volunteers.)

Until that day comes--possibly as early as July 1, should the bill become law--clever barkeeps will continue adapting to the prohibition on temporary drink discounts by discounting their drinks all day long.

"What we have in Kansas is happy days rather than happy hours," John Rubin, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, told Yahoo News. Rubin said his bill, which passed the state House on Wednesday, will help make Kansas bars that are on the state's border with Missouri--a lawless state known for not regulating its discounted after-work drinks--more competitive.

Hurricane Allie's Bar and Grill in Merriam is one example of the "happy day" phenomenon. It advertises $2 Tuesdays when beers and well drinks are $2 all day. That's followed by Wacky Wednesdays, and then Thirsty Thursdays, according to the bar's Facebook page.

Page Dickeson, who owns College Hill Tavern in Topeka, told Yahoo News that she thinks her 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. business will increase about 40 percent if the bill passes. Dickeson remembers working in a bar in Kansas City, Mo., when the happy hour ban first passed. Kansans seeking a happy hour drove across the border. "It increased revenue a great deal," she said.

Kansas is one of 24 states that ban or restrict happy hours, according to the Alcohol Beverage Institute, a group that opposes restrictions to what it calls social, moderate drinking. Most of the bans passed in the 1980s and '90s, but Utah passed its own ban just last year as part of a raft of new liquor-restricting laws. (The Utah Hospitality Association sued and alleged that lawmakers were unduly influenced by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which prohibits alcohol consumption.) Last year, Massachusetts considered lifting its happy hour ban, passed in 1984 under Gov. Michael Dukakis, but ultimately scrapped the effort. The ban passed after a group of young women won free pitchers of beer in a name-that-tune game in a Braintree bar and then went for a drunken joy ride that left one of them dead.

Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Vermont say bars must serve discounted drinks all day long or not at all, while Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington only allow bars to discount food, never alcohol. Eleven more states ban certain kinds of discounted drinks, free drinks, or paying a price for unlimited drinks ("all you can drink"). Other states prevent bars from advertising their drink specials outside or online.

Studies have shown that people, and especially young people, drink more alcohol when it's cheap, but one study that specifically looked at a happy hour ban (in Ontario, Canada) found that the ban didn't significantly change alcohol-consumption habits.

Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the Alcohol Beverage Institute, says years ago, "patently irresponsible" happy hours offered "four for one" specials and encouraged binge drinking. But an outright ban of happy hours is an overreach, she said. "We advocate for consumers to be able to make choices that are moderate and responsible," Longwell said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has not lobbied Kansas politicians to vote against the measure, according to Anna Duerr, a spokesman for the group. Happy hour bans are not the group's priority right now, she said.

For the past five years, MADD has focused on getting breathalyzer-activated ignition interlocks in the cars of convicted drunk drivers, setting up law-enforcement drunk driving checkpoints, and passing child endangerment laws, which punish drunk drivers who have kids in the car with them.

"People just have to plan ahead to ensure that they have a safe way home, whether that's a cab or a designated driver," Duerr said of happy hours.

Dickeson, the Topeka bar owner, said she is always careful that no one who drinks too much drives home. She has paid for patrons' cabs, she said. "I'm always kind of the mama bear when it comes to making sure everybody gets home," she says.

John Rubin, the sponsor of the bill in the Kansas House, said he's a fan of MADD, but he wants to roll back some of the "byzantine" liquor laws in Kansas, including a prohibition against selling "all you can drink" tickets at outdoor events.

"Kansas is always probably going to regulate alcohol more strictly than other states like New York, for example," Rubin says. "That's fine, I can live with that. But when the rules don't make any sense, when they're contradictory, those are the laws that we need to change and modernize."

According to Ben Jenkins at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 15 states have repealed Sunday liquor sales bans since 2002.

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