Tuesday, June 10, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Taking on liquor laws

Arkansas’ cultural landscape will see big changes if voters approve an amendment to the state’s Constitution in November to do away with liquor laws. It would allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell beer and wine and restaurants to serve alcohol.

More liquor stores could open in dry areas. Wet counties such as Pulaski County would not see more liquor stores, but existing ones could move to new locations. They’d be treated more like other businesses and less like pariahs, but at a cost. They’d have to compete with Walmart.

Business forces in Jacksonville and Sherwood have been working to expand liquor sales to restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores in their communities. Supporters of the local effort say it will boost sales taxes and attract more restaurants that have stayed out of our communities. Supporters have been collecting signatures with the aim of bringing the issue to a vote in the fall.

But the larger initiative that could supersede local efforts is now being led mostly by the country’s largest employer — Arkansas-based Walmart. The mega-retailer, seeing millions in potential revenue, is looking to break the liquor stores’ monopoly. Walmart now wants to sell Budweiser and bologna. But are voters ready for it?

Religious sensibilities and concerns about drunk driving have helped keep anti-liquor laws on the books. If the slow process of collecting signatures to get local measures on the ballot are any indication, those same concerns are still on the minds of many residents.

Old-timers remember when blue laws here even prohibited buying diapers on Sundays — a messy inconvenience when rearing children that could spoil anyone’s day of rest. It’s not clear if this amendment would allow Sunday liquor sales outside restaurants, but it seems inevitable.

Since Colorado and Washington State have legalized marijuana to generate tax revenue and reduce prison populations, Arkansas’ liquor restrictions are looking more and more old-fashioned. (Two efforts to legalize marijuana – one for recreational use, the other for medical use – are also trying to make it on the ballot here.)

Thirty-nine of Arkansas’ 75 counties are dry. That means some law-abiding residents have to cross three counties just to buy beer.

More than a third of fatal car crashes in Arkansas are caused by drunk drivers. If the law changes, that ratio might even decrease because statistics in states with fewer alcohol restrictions are surprising.

According to the State Police’s Highway Safety Office, in 2011 – the most recent year records are available – there were 509 traffic deaths in all and 208 were alcohol-related in a state with just under 3 million people. That means 40 percent of traffic deaths in Arkansas were alcohol-related.

Missouri and Louisiana have almost no restrictions on alcohol, but alcohol-related deaths are a lot fewer than you’d expect.

Louisiana, with a population of 4.6 million, had 710 traffic deaths in 2012 and 280 were alcohol related. That is 39 percent, about the same as Arkansas. In 2001 in Missouri, with 6 million people, there were 773 road deaths. Alcohol-related deaths were attributed to 209 accidents. That is 27 percent.

Parents in the Show Me state can even give their underage children alcohol. Louisiana, whose northern region is as conservative as any Bible Belt state, has some of the loosest liquor laws in the country. In other parts of the state, drive-through frozen daiquiri stands are common.

In Texas in 2011, there were 3,067 traffic deaths in all, and 1,104 were attributed to alcohol. That is 35 percent. With almost 10 times our population, that state has 18 dry counties and 47 completely wet counties.

But these laws are not unique to the South. Pennsylvania, Vermont and Utah have some of the most restrictive alcohol laws in the country.

We’re far from the freewheeling ways of our neighboring states. Perhaps the biggest change to come: Liquor stores near county lines could move into town. Stores could open on Main Street or near Greystone in Cabot, and restaurants might serve alcohol in communities where it’s been prohibited for a century.