Johnson County voters will decide future of liquor-by-the-drink rule in November

Johnson County bars curfew

Bars and restaurants in Johnson County can now operate under their normal hours, instead of having to close at midnight, following a surprise vote from the Johnson County Commission Thursday. Other health limits, including masking and social distancing guidelines, remain in place through at least March 31. Photo credit Matthew Juzenas. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Johnson County voters in November will decide whether they want to end the last vestiges of the county’s dry liquor laws and allow businesses to sell alcoholic drinks without also having to sell food.

The county commission unanimously voted to put a ballot question in the general election that will lift a three-decade restriction – a move much sought by the new micro-brewers who have begun to open around the county.

Brewery owners have been on a campaign since last year to get the law changed that requires them to make at least 30% of their gross sales in food in order to also sell alcoholic drinks. They’ve said the food sales add a layer of difficulty to their small operations, and lifting the rule would even the playing field.

Small taps have proliferated in other parts of Kansas City and have begun to take root in Johnson County the past few years. Commissioners supported the effort, saying it would hasten economic development.

“This is archaic and out of date,” Commissioner Becky Fast said of the existing law. “Johnson County should have led on this years ago. Our decision is to put it on the ballot and I trust the voters of Johnson County on this decision.”

Kansans voted in 1986 to allow liquor by the drink. The 30% rule went into place as a result of the county’s vote in favor back then. Individual counties can remove that requirement by popular vote.

If voters approve it, Johnson County will be the last of Kansas’s metro areas to get rid of the 30% rule.

Although most commissioners approved of the idea, Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said he was voting for it with reservations. The move might improve economic development, but he said it could also usher in more bars.

If that happens, he said the county will “get away from the family environment that the 30% food consumption has fostered.” He also said some police have expressed concerns about it.

“I would hope that Johnson County is mature enough that this will not become a problem,” Ashcraft said.