DENVER (AP) – Colorado’s unusual requirement that most grocery stores sell only low-alcohol beer could be ending. A bill moving through the state Legislature would allow more grocery stores to sell beer stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol, or “near beer.”

But it’s far too soon to say whether state lawmakers, and not voters, will have the final say.

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Lawmakers were entering their final day of work Wednesday with swirling questions about how to undo the low-alcohol beer requirement without endangering thousands of liquor stores.

A bill headed to a vote late Tuesday is aimed at preventing a ballot measure by grocers to see Colorado stop being one of only five states that don’t allow full-strength beer in most grocery stores.

The bill would allow grocers to add full-strength beer and wine over a 20-year period. Until then, grocers would have to pay off neighboring liquor stores to get their licenses.

“Everyone would agree our laws are antiquated,” said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver. “But we need time. We need time to ease into that process.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper and some other Democrats have said they don’t want to see any change to existing liquor laws. Craft beer brewers have said they fear that they wouldn’t be able to compete for shelf space against larger manufacturers.

But the brewers and small liquor stores favor the bill. That’s because they fear that voters would approve a measure to immediately allow full-strength beer and wine in all grocery stores.

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Those fears were confirmed Tuesday when Colorado’s largest grocers – King Soopers, Safeway and Albertsons – testified that they’ll continue with plans to run multimillion-dollar campaigns this fall to end Colorado’s “near beer” requirements once and for all.

“Our intention is to serve the desires of our customers,” said Kelly McGannon, King Soopers’ director of public affairs. “They want wine when they grocery shop.”

Some liquor stores also weren’t thrilled with the proposal.

“I’m handcuffed by this bill,” said Jim Shpall, CEO of Applejack Wine & Spirits. Shpall said he didn’t oppose the bill, but thought it gives grocers more opportunity than liquor retailers to expand.

Lawmakers didn’t have much time to work out all the differences. The state House faces a midnight deadline Tuesday to take a vote on the measure, with the House and Senate required to settle any disagreements by the end of the term Wednesday.

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.

– By KRISTEN WYATT, AP Writer

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