A Dry State (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

As I have opined previously, the liquor laws in this state — particularly those dealing with wet and dry counties — are designed to provide the liquor industry with the highest possible profit margin by removing any likelihood of a change in the comfortable status quo.

As it happens, the liquor industry’s best ally in keeping things just as they are is the bloc of conservative Christians who don’t indulge and believe that limiting or eliminating consumption by others is a righteous goal. By opposing any expansion of liquor sales into additional counties, they help ensure that alcohol consumers will be funneled straight to the first-stop package store just over the county line.

For the retailers, having a dry county go wet — allowing someone else to grab a big chunk of their customer base — would be almost as bad as having a wet county go dry. That’s why dry-to-wet or wet-to-dry questions are the only ballot initiatives that require proponents of change to clear the nigh-impossible hurdle of collecting signatures from 38 percent of the registered voters in the jurisdiction rather than a reasonable 15 percent.

Conway — my birthplace and current residence of Lu Hardin, architect of the 38 percent Liquor Profit Protection Act — is on the bleeding edge of this issue. Faulkner County is dry, but two restaurants in Conway, Mike’s Place and Oak Street Bistro, have managed to get private club licenses allowing them to serve alcohol to members. And now the Agora Conference Center is going after the same thing.

Political leaders and chamber types have cast this as an economic development issue for Conway. I’m not sure I buy into that; I’ve become automatically suspicious when the words “economic development” are applied to anything. But I have an idea for breaking up the unholy alliance between the liquor lobby and the moral opponents so that this state’s mix of dry and wet counties could be determined by the actual will of the people. Regnat populus and all that jazz.

First, the General Assembly should pass two laws. The first would declare that as of a certain date, say two years in the future, every county in Arkansas would be dry unless a majority of voters indicated otherwise in an election required to be held prior to that date.

The other would put any subsequent changes in wet or dry status back on equal footing with every other question of direct democracy by reducing the required number of signatures on the petition back to 15 percent. It would be fair, I think, to limit the frequency with which this type of election could be made to every 10 years or so; it really would become an economic development issue if restaurants and liquor stores couldn’t even be sure of their legality from year to year.

The liquor industry, a formidable lobby, would naturally scream and yell about such proposed bills. But it would have to do it without the moralist chorus, which would have a hard time publicly opposing a law with the potential to make more counties — the whole state, maybe — a teetotaler’s heaven. Since every county would be required to decide anew whether to be wet or dry, the will of the majority could be determined for, in most cases, the first time since a significant percentage of the male population was off fighting Hitler and Hirohito.

In case any legislators who actually believe in democracy are reading this, I’m serious about this proposal. I also think it that the Arkansas Legislature should reconsider the idea of “semi-wet” counties: counties in which package stores are forbidden but liquor-by-the-drink could be served in properly licensed restaurants.

If giving Arkansans a practical opportunity to vote on the current system of wet and dry counties sounds risky, it is because no one has any idea what the outcome would be. And, in my opinion, that’s a good enough reason to put it to a vote.


(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. E-mail her at gmoritz@abpg.com.)