Tuesday, February 10, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Liquor drive running dry

Efforts to loosen liquor laws in Jacksonville and Sherwood seem to have hit a wall.

Organizers so far don’t have enough signatures to hold local elections and let voters decide if they want restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores to sell alcohol. Under the plan, restaurants would be allowed to have a full bar, and grocery stores and gas stations would be allowed to sell only beer and wine.

In Jacksonville, the petition drive needs 5,008 signatures from registered voters to get the measure on the ballot, but it came up short by more than 1,400 signatures.

The clock is ticking. If Jacksonville can’t make up the difference by March 5, the petition will be ruled invalid and volunteers will have to start all over.

Sherwood has struggled even more. There, canvassers have collected only about 1,500 out of the 4,752 that are required.

Both cities’ chambers of commerce have been leading the charge to ease liquor laws in their communities and help attract restaurants to the area. These liquor laws are at least 60 years old, and it’s time for voters to revisit them.

City officials point out there’s an effort in the legislature to allow dry cities the option to serve alcohol in restaurants and hotels. Voters statewide will decide on the wet-dry issue again in 2016 after they overwhelmingly rejected in November a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made every county wet.

But the local initiatives are the most important. Cities can cash in on the tax revenue from alcohol sales, as well as from the food sold and building permits, if chain restaurants want to open here.

Skeptics who say drunk driving will increase if liquor laws are changed should understand that in Missouri and Louisiana, where liquor laws are among the loosest in the nation, DWI rates are actually lower than in Arkansas, where only 10 counties are completely wet. Another 27 counties have wet-dry areas and another 38 counties ban sales completely, except at private clubs.

Barry Sellers, Sherwood’s economic developer, has questioned the fairness of requiring a whopping 38 percent of registered voters to sign a petition to get any measure related to alcohol laws on the ballot. Other issues need only 10 percent of registered voters’ signatures to get on the ballot. Sellers hopes the legislature will change that law, but that might be more difficult than knocking on every registered voter’s door twice a day to get enough signatures.

Why is the bar so high for alcohol? Is it because special interests, such as liquor stores, don’t want more competition?

Setting such a high bar makes it difficult — nearly impossible — to repeal local alcohol prohibitions, although last fall, voters in Saline and Columbia counties, which were formerly dry, voted themselves wet.

Diners will continue to spend their money down the road in North Little Rock, where dozens of chain restaurants are raking it in thanks to prohibitions in most areas to the north, except for some pockets in Jacksonville. (Cabot, like the rest of Lonoke County, is also dry.)

Residents should not have to detour several miles out of their way just to buy a six-pack before a ballgame on TV or a bottle of wine to celebrate special occasions.