Saturday, October 31, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Areas revisit wet-dry laws

The Lonoke County Quorum Court and Jacksonville officials in separate undertakings are hoping to do away with local alcohol restrictions that prohibit sales in restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, except with a private-club license. And liquor stores are banned entirely.

As with all prohibitions, the aim is to prevent or reduce use of a certain product, but what usually happens is that the demand remains and the providers operate elsewhere.

Jacksonville and Cabot residents routinely dine in North Little Rock to enjoy drinks with their meals. They can’t buy beer or wine at their grocery store either, so they have to stop at the liquor stores near the Pulaski County line.

Officials may not be concerned with the inconvenience of residents, but they know millions of dollars are pouring out of their communities and would like to keep some of that money to spend on roads and parks and create new service and constructions jobs when the major-name restaurants come to town.

We’ve said before that it’s time to do away with dry laws. Voters in 2014 rejected a ballot amendment — backed by Walmart — that would have ended alcohol laws across the state. It was close, with 57 percent against.

The alcohol amendment was even closer locally with 10,822 voting for it and 8,533 against it in Lonoke County. Even Pulaski County, where alcohol sales are allowed, except in Jacksonville and some of Sherwood, voters were closely divided with 477,877 supporting it and 354,446 against.

Many voters were swayed by the argument that alcohol laws should be decided locally, as some communities have established prohibitions on firearms or other issues.

In the run-up to the statewide vote last year, organizers in Jacksonville and Sherwood were collecting signatures to get a local election on expanding liquor sales into restaurants, grocery and convenience stores.

They now want to revive those efforts. Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) has asked the attorney general if the signatures collected last year can be carried over to another round of petitioning. The law has changed since those were collected, lowering the percentage of names required from 35 percent to 15 percent. But that comes at a cost. The ensuing vote will now be only on allowing alcohol sales for on-premise consumption at restaurants and hotels.

Sherwood organizers have been less active recently but remain interested in allowing liquor sales all over town.

The Lonoke County Quorum Court unanimously requested that the University of Arkansas Extension Service do a study on the economic benefits of doing away with the county’s dry laws. It will almost certainly say that drunk driving and alcoholism rates will stay at current rates and cities and the county can generate millions in revenue every year.

Since the study will come from a trusted agency that’s known for its good work supporting farmers and rural communities for decades, the results will then be used to make the case with voters. They’ll be asked to pass it in the name of supporting local businesses that will create new jobs.

North Little Rock’s restaurant row is saturated with just about every franchise name in the industry, but others will want open in Jacksonville and Cabot when liquor laws are finally changed.