by Gwen Moritz
Posted 11/18/2013 12:00 am
Updated 5 months ago
News items of note:
• Arkansas Business reported last month that the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division had proposed ending the requirement that private clubs in Arkansas’ “dry” counties maintain signature log books to record the names of their “guests.”
• Early this month, TV's most popular Christians, the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty,” announced a joint venture to market California wines under the camo-print Duck Commander label.
• Last Tuesday, six precincts in the Park Hill area of North Little Rock voted to go “wet,” ending a ban on alcohol sales in the middle of town that dated back to 1966. Voters decided to permit liquor by the drink in restaurants and the sale of beer and wine in gas stations, but not to allow package liquor stores.
The times, they are a-changin’ and it seems to me long past time for Arkansas’ laws on alcohol to change with the times. There is a lot of silliness and protectionism in the law — in what other industry is cost-efficient chain ownership forbidden by state statute? — and the worst is the deliberate impediment to determining the will of the people.
I’m talking about the requirement that referendums changing the wet-dry status of a jurisdiction be supported by a petition of 38 percent of registered voters just to get on the ballot. All other exercises in direct democracy in Arkansas require only 15 percent, and so it was with wet-dry referendums from 1942 to 1985. Then the signature requirement was raised to 30 percent, and it was raised again in 1995 to the current level.
I wasn’t living in Arkansas in 1995, but I can't come up with any explanation for such an onerous law except this: to assure that the parts of the state that were wet remained wet and the parts that were dry remained dry, regardless of what the residents wanted.
And it worked until 2006, when Jim Wilson Jr., a justice of the peace up in Marion County, decided to collect the nearly 4,000 signatures it would take to put the question to the 10,000 voters in his county. Getting that many signatures on a petition seems to be tantamount to approval, because Marion County went wet — and so did all five dry counties that subsequently got the question on the ballot. And then, of course, Park Hill.
The fact that it can be done doesn't change my opinion that it shouldn't be so hard for voters to voice their opinion. The 15 percent signature requirement that prevents ballots from being cluttered with personal whims and wish lists would be adequate for wet-dry elections as well.
I suspect that efficiently determining the current will of the majority of voters in dry counties and precincts would go a long way toward fixing some of the other silliness in our liquor laws, like restaurant chains pretending to be nonprofit “private clubs” just so they can serve beer and wine in towns like Jonesboro and Benton. And since I suspect that most, maybe all, of Arkansas’ 37 remaining dry counties would promptly go wet, I suspect the law that limits package store owners to a single store license would be history pretty quickly as well.
I’ve never put a lot of stock in the argument that alcohol is an economic development tool — after all, Conway, Cabot and Bryant are in dry counties while Pine Bluff and Helena are in wet counties. I'm also pretty sure that Arkansans over the age of 21 who want to drink are already doing so. The county line isn’t nearly as daunting a trip as it was in the 1940s, when most of Arkansas’ dry counties voted to restrict alcohol sales.
I doubt that a single Park Hill resident will have one more drink than usual as a result of last week’s vote. But I do expect a number of alcohol-serving restaurants will open along the busy stretch of JFK Boulevard, and I can imagine it becoming a walkable mealtime destination similar to Kavanaugh in Hillcrest.
Yes, the new restaurants will undoubtedly cannibalize business from existing restaurants elsewhere in North Little Rock — more restaurants do not increase the amount of disposable income in a given market. But for Park Hill specifically, its residents and commercial property owners, removing an arbitrary restriction on one industry really could be an economic development breakthrough.
I also don’t put any stock in the argument that the roads in wet counties are inherently more dangerous. An analysis by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2006 concluded that alcohol-related traffic fatalities were somewhat more common on a per-capita basis in dry counties than in wet ones. A similar study in Kentucky a few years earlier came to the same conclusion.
Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.