Several years have passed since a comprehensive review of Iowa's liquor licensing rules and regulations has involved a wide variety of stakeholders, but early stages of potential reform brought itself to Davenport on Thursday.
The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division held a public forum at the Rhythm City Casino Resort for business owners, law enforcement and government officials to openly discuss ways to improve current licensing while keeping communities safe.
With more than 13,000 licenses issued each year and Iowa facing a changing marketplace, Administrator Stephen Larson said there was a need to inspect Chapter 123 of the Iowa Code, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.
"Our goal is at this time next year we will issue recommendations to the Iowa Legislature and the government in partnership with local authorities, law enforcement along with ABD and the commission of public safety as to whether Iowa's licensing laws are still relevant and meet the policy purpose of Chapter 123," Larson said.
The public forum in Davenport is one of several opportunities for stakeholders to have input on potential areas in need of reform in addition to a series of working meetings that will be held in the coming months.
For the large contingent of bar and business owners, their concerns centered around the cost and availability of dramshop insurance as well as penalties assessed as a result of a "Place of Last Drink" program.
Dramshop insurance covers the liabilities associated to the sale of alchohol.
Within state statute, on-premise establishments are required to have dramshop insurance to have a liquor licenses. Off the premise businesses, such as a convenience store, are not.
Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said there were four states, including Iowa, that differentiate between an on-premise and off-premise sale.
Additionally, the dram insurance ISO rating, which ranks how easy it is to offer insurance on a scale of 10, was a seven in Iowa. Lower scores are more preferable.
"There aren't a bunch of dram providers because no one wants to come to this state," Dunker said.
Dunker recalled one operator who was paying $45,000 per year in insurance for $150,000 in coverage.
"Do you know why it's $150,000?" Dunker said. "It's because that's the minimum. We are now squeezing operators so that they are paying more and more and have less and less coverage."
Tied to the issues with dram insurance, several bar and restaurant owners spoke out about concerns with the state implementing a program to track the last place of alcohol purchase for OWI offenders.
Josh Happe, regulatory compliance program bureau chief, said the ABD is still in the infancy stages of putting together the program and receiving funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
For areas that are not a problem, Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan said it would allow the state to use resources more efficiently.
"It's a small percentage of people responsible for a pretty substantial part of the problem so a lot of the hotspots policing is trying to figure out where those are and where problems are occurring," Ryan said.
From the municipal level, Eric Goers, assistant city attorney for Iowa City, spoke to granting more local control for the ruling and granting of liquor license applications.
Goers said part of the issue has centered around the vague language when it comes to denying applications for a lack of "good moral character," which he said needed greater teeth.
Other local municipal officials echoed those comments and the sentiment that denying a license may not bear any fruits over a growing belief that the decision would be overturned.
"We've done that in Iowa City, lastly in 2009, and did go through the appeal process and were first overturned by the (administrative law judge) and then the administrator," Goers said. "That problem was the crimes were committed by the patrons and not by the bar licensee itself. I understand that, but it doesn't do anything for the local population that deals with the consequences, nuisances that it draws for those that live nearby, the businesses and police resources that are caused by having to be responsive."
Larson said the input collected Thursday and at other meetings and forums would be used to create the recommendations it will submit to the legislature.
"There's no takeaway that the laws don't work," Larson said. "Clearly, we need to determine if they need to be refreshed, redefined, re-clarified or repealed. What we're not going to do is anything that's going to minimize public safety or public health."