Friday, October 31, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Liquor vote: You decide

If you believe that alcohol is the degradation of man and the ruin of families — a notion with which we sometimes do not vigorously quarrel — then you will want to vote against Ballot Issue 4, which legalizes liquor sales in currently dry counties.

If you have a more tolerant view of alcohol, there is no reason to oppose statewide liquor sales and some reason to vote for it. It is a free-market issue more than a moral question. The raging battle in the media is mostly between the current sellers of bottled liquor in wet precincts and those who would be their competitors and siphon away their sales. The principal source of money for the ads attacking the proposal is a clutch of liquor stores in Conway County, a wet outpost in a sea of dry counties, which put up $558,000 for the campaign against the amendment. Their attorney filed the suit seeking to knock it off the ballot and the suit’s plaintiff was the package stores’ consultant. Altogether, $1.7 million has been spent against the amendment, while Let Arkansas Decide, the group that put the amendment on the ballot and is supporting it, took in $165,000.

There is not a lot of truth in the claims on either side and your own instincts are better guides. Statewide liquor sales will not lead to thousands of new jobs and a giant economic boost, though it will produce a little more tax revenue for those counties. But neither will the constitutional amendment’s passage lead to “liquor stores on every corner” and across the street from schools and churches.

The latter is a claim in many ads and statements from the groups fighting the amendment. But you can put them to rest. The amendment does not repeal current laws regulating liquor sales. When told of the claims, Milton R. Lueken, the attorney for the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division for the past 25 years, who enforces the state’s liquor laws, laughed and called the claims “bull….”

Arkansas law now prohibits liquor stores within 1,000 feet of churches and schools. If the amendment passes, that prohibition will extend to the whole state. Also, the law allows only one liquor store for each 5,000 population, so there will be no proliferation of liquor stores in any community. Unless the legislature changes the laws restricting liquor outlets, which it can do already, that will be the law in all 75 counties if the amendment passes.

Polls suggest the amendment will fail, but the backers say there will be a quiet vote for it. “Most Arkansans have the common sense and ability to see through all of the smokescreens that the liquor stores are throwing up,” said David Couch of Let Arkansas Decide. “I think when they go in there and they look at the ballot, they know what it’s about. And they know who’s against it.”

The liquor dealers have one realistic concern — that the first stores approved in currently dry counties will be big stores like Walmart, which will sell at much lower prices than the existing dealers, pulling away business from current outlets in Conway County and the many county-line liquor stores or those in wet precincts or forcing down their prices.

One argument of the proponents that has some legitimacy is that it will end the long drives from people in dry counties to the county-line liquor stores, often in the evening, and reduce the traffic accidents and deaths on those heavily traveled routes.

It would also end similar drives in Jacksonville and Sherwood.

Jacksonville became dry in December 1954, while more than half of Sherwood became dry in 1956 — when townships that existed then voted to prohibit alcohol sales. Although the townships as political entities are gone, the laws that were voted on remain in effect.

Then state lawmakers pushed a bill through in the 2013 legislative session that gives residents in the defunct townships a chance to decide on the issue of being wet or dry.

The chambers of commerce of the two cities have been working for a year to collect more than 4,000 signatures each — 38 percent of registered voters in each defunct township — to get local-option elections.

If the statewide amendment passes, their goal of bringing more alcohol-selling restaurants, grocery and convenience stores will be realized and their struggles to get local-option elections won’t be necessary.

On the other hand, passage of the amendment could mean 15 liquor stores in White County and 13 in Lonoke County. Pulaski County is already maxed out on its permits.

If the statewide amendment fails, that may benefit Jacksonville and Sherwood in a roundabout way because, if local-option elections are set and those cities go totally wet, they won’t have to compete with neighboring counties for alcohol-selling businesses.

But let your moral and ethical impulses, not the claims of the competing liquor interests, be your guide when you vote on Issue No. 4.