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Will Indiana State Fair Beer and Wine Experiment Stay at Current Level?

Will Indiana State Fair Beer and Wine Experiment Stay at Current Level?
Let's hope the lid isn't open on Pandora's box at the Indiana State Fair

By all accounts the 2014 Indiana State Fair's plan to allow Indiana craft beer makers and wine producers to exhibit their products and serve it to customers was successful. No problems were reported to our knowledge. The activity was kept inside the Grand Hall on the South side of the state fairgrounds track, and the windows were tastefully covered so no one could see in.

The State Fair touted it as one of their successes in a final news release about the fair. There was even a symbolic grape vine planted and growing outside of the Grand Hall.

The State Fair touted wine and beer tastings as one of their successes in a final news release about the fair. There was even a symbolic grape vine planted and growing outside of the Grand Hall. (Photo by Jennifer Campbell)

The exhibit was possible because the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that allowed the state fair to let alcohol be served during the fair under a tight set of rules. Everyone appeared to adhere to those rules.

Related: 'Sour Grapes' Contribute to Indiana Economy

When lawmakers proposed a similar effort a couple of years ago, Indiana Prairie Farmer issued an editorial opposed to changing the law to allow it. The simple justification was that it was a slippery slope. It seemed to us that it would be a short step between allowing Indiana producers to showcase their products, and allowing anyone to sell beer anywhere on the grounds.

We acknowledge that there is a strong and growing wine industry within the state. Starting with a handful of wineries and grape growers a few years ago, there are now about 80 wineries statewide. Some Indiana wines have performed well in various competitions. It's a good opportunity for Indiana wineries to showcase their products.

If it remains as it was this year, carefully controlled with sales inside limited to three glasses per person, it appears that those who want to sample products can do so without creating harm or imposing on the rights of those outside the building who don't think a state fair is the right place to expose their children to alcohol.

Open lid?
What concerns us is the precedent that precedes this situation. In the 1980s one big issue was whether to legalize a lottery in Indiana. Even those who initially opposed it finally realized that Indiana was losing revenue to surrounding states because people were driving across state lines to buy lottery tickets. What could having a voluntary lottery that would raise money for schools hurt, anyway?

Whether the legislature passing legislation to approve it from a vantage point 25 years later was a good move still might be up for discussion. Ironically, the Hoosier Millionaire lottery show celebrated its 25th anniversary with a show in the Indiana Farm Bureau auditorium at the fair on August 16. The Hoosier lottery was the official sponsor of the Grandstands.

Exactly what the money generated from the lottery has been used for isn't as clear. It certainly hasn't all went for education. In the early days it helped fund a program that gave large grants to community groups and other organizations that needed seed money. Governor O'Bannon was forced to halt that program when some raised questions about whether it was constitutional or not. The Indiana FFA Center was left waiting for $300,000 for much-needed improvements, which never came.

The bigger issue is that once "gambling" was approved, it didn't stop with the lottery. Next the legislature legalized betting on horse races. Before long they approved gambling in casinos, but the casinos had to be on river boats. Now legalized gambling is allowed at locations besides river boats.

If people knew that the lottery would lead to other forms of gambling, would they have told their legislators it was OK? I, for one, would have said no.

With that precedent in mind, if alcohol during the Indiana State Fair remains just craft beers and wine from Hoosier wineries in the Grand Hall, with strict controls on keeping it in the building, most Hoosiers can likely live with it. However, if it leads to beer concessions in the Coliseum serving commercial beers, like is allowed in some other states, that's another issue altogether.

Allowing tasting and sale of Indiana products in a controlled environments is one thing. Opening up the entire fairgrounds to alcohol sales when it's supposed to be a family event is quite another.

Is anything like that in the works? Not that we know of. But we didn't know horse race betting and casino gambling would follow the lottery either. If you have strong feelings on this issue, one way or the other, it's worth a conversation with your legislator.

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