A Wet State of Mind (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

I used to think I was just so darn clever, but that was before I saw Little Rock attorney David Couch in action.

In 2005, I came up with the idea of forcing all Arkansas counties to vote on whether to allow alcohol sales or else automatically become “dry.” Because I knew that my idea had no chance of being introduced in the General Assembly, much less enacted, my goal was merely to underscore our state’s ridiculous (and dangerous) patchwork of wet and dry counties that are designed to maximize the profit and convenience of liquor retailers.

Futile though it was, my idea illustrated the difficulty of separating the strange bedfellows who want to keep dry counties dry: the moral objectors and the liquor retailers who love having their customers funneled to them at the county line. People who object to all alcohol sales on moral grounds should welcome my idea, which had the potential for making every county in Arkansas dry, while the liquor industry fears a dry county going wet only slightly less than a wet county going dry.

Keeping things just as profitable as they are is why the Legislature gradually increased the threshold for petitions to put a wet-dry referendum on the ballot from 15 percent of registered voters in a given county to the current prohibitive level of 38 percent. Neither the industry nor the moral opponents really want to determine the current will of the people, but for different reasons.

The 38 percent hurdle is not completely prohibitive, of course. Since 2006, proponents of alcohol sales have collected the required number of signatures in six dry counties (and a few dry precincts in North Little Rock), and in every case, voters then chose to “go wet.”

But it is an expensive proposition to collect so many signatures, particularly in a heavily populated county. It cost a half-million dollars (from Walton family members) just to put the question on the ballot in Benton County, formerly the wettest dry county in the state.

This is where David Couch’s brilliance leaves my cute little mental exercise in the dust. He did the math and realized that it would be easier and cheaper to collect the 78,000 signatures needed to get an amendment to the state Constitution on the November general election ballot — just 10 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — than to collect 38 percent of registered voter signatures in one county after another. So he drafted a little amendment that would simply authorize “the manufacture, sale, distribution and transportation” of alcoholic beverages — as regulated by the state, naturally — in every county. No other restrictions and regulations would change, but all counties would be wet counties.

Couch’s first stab at wording his amendment was rejected by the attorney general’s office, but he’s already submitted a revision that addresses the AG’s specific complaints. I fully expect this wording or similar will be approved and that Couch will come up with the money necessary to collect the signatures.

Who will fund the petition drive? Couch wouldn’t be specific when I talked to him last week, but it’s easy to imagine that convenience store operators would find the prospect of being able to sell beer anywhere in the state an appealing investment. Also, restaurants in currently dry counties that want to serve beer or wine, or even install a full bar, might want to throw a few bucks at the effort, which would be ever so much easier than complying with the current fiction of becoming a nonprofit private club.

Once he has the green light from the AG’s office, Couch need merely collect the signatures of 78,000 registered voters, and instead of 38 percent of each dry county’s voters, he’ll only need 5 percent of the voters in 15 different counties.

Then, come November, every voter in the state will get to register his or her opinion on whether every county should be wet.

It’s so simple I have to wonder why it hasn’t already been done. Maybe it’s because the idea that no county could choose, by majority vote, to restrict alcohol sales seems so undemocratic. Couch’s idea would allow the majority of Arkansans who already live in wet counties (about 63 percent of the state’s population, by my calculation) to decide how the other 37 percent will live.

I only wanted to remove the artificial impediment to determining the current will of the people, not necessarily make every county wet — although there is mounting evidence that wet counties are less dangerous for drivers, which might justify taking away the local option to be dry.

If he succeeds, Couch will send the package liquor industry into a tizzy because doubling the number of wet counties in the state won’t double the number of drinkers or the amount of hooch each drinks. That part might be fun to watch.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.