Alcohol Becomes Popular Topic
Special Report - March 26, 2010
More than two dozen representatives of local governments, nonprofits, businesses, and ordinary citizens spent more than three hours voicing their opinions on the sale of alcohol in North Carolina at the March 24 meeting of the Joint Study Committee on Alcoholic Beverage Control. All but one voiced opposition to the possibility of changing North Carolina’s system of controlling alcohol sales at the local level to a state or privatized system. City council members, county commissioners, and law enforcement representatives came to Raleigh from around the state, including Concord, Gastonia, High Point, Jacksonville, Mount Airy, Wake Forest, Wilmington, Winston-Salem, and more. Two recurring themes were the importance of local control over decisions related to the availability, distribution, and sale of liquor, and the risks of alcohol access and abuse among youth.
The Study Committee was formed by the General Assembly to evaluate the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) system in the wake of report concerning various local board policies related primarily to board members’ compensation and interaction with liquor companies. A recent report by the Program Evaluation Division found a need for “modernization” within the ABC system. Possible reforms include ethics training, increased oversight of local boards by the State ABC Commission, clarification of the system and local boards’ missions, and partial or complete privatization. Most speakers agreed that changes are needed, but support the overall system and would oppose efforts to fundamentally change how alcohol has been controlled throughout North Carolina’s history. Many cited the Program Evaluation Division’s finding that North Carolina, as a state, ranks third in the country in revenue per gallon sold, and 48th in per capita consumption of hard liquor as evidence that the local control system is by and large successful. Gastonia city council member John Howren summarized the general sentiment well when he said the state should “polish what we have and make it a shining example for others.”
Local ABC and government officials most vocally objected to proposals to privatize all or part of the system amid concerns that they could not replace those revenue streams to vital functions like law enforcement. Many of them also argued that the referenda held across the state to allow alcohol sales in local communities were based on a clearly government-controlled system for selling spirits, and those votes could not be assumed to also apply to the sale of spirits by private businesses. Additionally, they presented adamant opposition to the proposal to give the State ABC Commission authority to force local boards to merge based on profitability. According to Karl Knapp, the director of research for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, a local ABC board may have very legitimate reasons from a local perspective for choosing to operate a store at a lower level of profitability. He cited customer service, convenience, and using the store as a tool of economic development as examples of things that may not make a store as profitable as another, but would be oriented toward serving the local community.
Various nonprofit groups and law enforcement representatives echoed local government concerns of increased criminal activity, especially among younger age groups. Jon Williams, chairman of the State ABC Commission, pointed out that “alcohol is a unique product with significant public health and safety dangers.”
Mark Creech, executive director the Christian Action League of North Carolina, reminded the committee that “the primary purpose of ABC in North Carolina has traditionally been about control and regulation, not profit.” Still, most agreed that there is a need to clarify the mission of both the state and local level boards. While most do not want to see the focus change from control to profit, they also recognize the need to put methods in place to ensure efficiency. Raising the voter threshold for a county or municipality to hold a referendum on the sale of alcohol from 500 to 5,000 has been proposed as a better means of ensuring the sustainability of an ABC board in a specific area.
The Study Committee will meet again to hear public comment on April 8 at 2pm. More information can be found on the Committee’s Web page.
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