Wet County Ballot Initiative Sprouts Up in Saline, Craighead Counties

Residents in Saline and Craighead counties will soon have the opportunity to sign a petition that would allow voters, on the November ballot, to decide whether retail alcohol sales should be allowed in those counties.

The Our Community, Our Dollars committee plans to begin petition drives this week in the two counties. Those drives are expected to last through early July.

Jay Allen, president of Our Community, Our Dollars and retired Wal-Mart executive, said the issue has not been addressed in Saline and Craighead counties in decades.

"Much has changed over time, and we want these counties to be have the opportunity to keep more sales tax revenue in their communities," Allen said in a news release. "The more tax revenue they ultimately receive, the better equipped they are to fund key services and amenities such as police, fire, [Emergency Medical Services], roads and parks."

Now, restaurants and hotels in the two counties must register as a private club, and therefore, purchase alcohol from a retailer in a neighboring county or somewhere else. The committee says if these counties were wet, restaurants and hotels could purchase alcohol from retailers in their counties, helping with convenience and economic issues in the counties.

According to state law, 38 percent of the registered voters in each county must sign a petition for the issue to make its way to the ballot in November. All signatures must be sent to the county clerk by early July for verification. Based on the most recent counts of registered voters in each county, the petition will need about 25,000 certified signatures in Saline County and 20,000 signatures in Craighead County.

The committee has hired National Ballot Access to lead drives in Saline and Craighead counties.

NBA was part of a similar drive in Benton County in 2012, which voted to become a wet county in that year's election.

The committee is being funded by Arkansas retailers and has gained sponsorships from Wal-Mart and Kum & Go. 

“Across Arkansas our customers are telling us they want added convenience and choice when shopping for adult beverages,” Ashley Taylor, Wal-Mart Arkansas vice president and regional general manager, said in the news release. “We can offer our customers an assortment of beer, wine and liquor as part of a convenient and comfortable one-stop shopping experience."

Taylor said Wal-Mart can provide the products in a "responsible manner" and "continue to work with suppliers, retailers, legislators and other stakeholders to modernize adult beverage laws that limit consumer choice and convenience."

Other retailers are expected to join the cause, the committee says.

“The Arkansas Grocers & Retail Merchants represents retailers that do business in these three counties, and a number of them are keenly interested in being able to better serve their customers by providing alcohol products to citizens who would prefer to purchase those products in their home counties versus having to go elsewhere,” Polly Martin, president of the Arkansas Grocers & Retail Merchants, said in the release. “We are committed to helping ensure voters have the opportunity to be heard on this issue.”

Columbia County Drive

A petition drive was also launched in Columbia County in January in an effor to vote on the county's status as wet or dry in the Novembe general election.

The drive was launched by Vote for Growth in Columbia County, which needs 6,300 signatures from registered voters to have the issue make its way to the ballot.

David Nelson, chairman of the group, told the Magnolia Reporter in January that if enough signatures are secured, the ballot proposal would read, "are you for or against the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors?" 

If the initiative makes its way to the ballot, and passes, it would not give restaurants the authority to sell liquor by the glass. City councils in the county would have to authorize special elections before that could be possible, according to the Magnolia Reporter. Columbia County's population would only allow about six liquor stores.

Wet or Dry State

David Couch is also working on a separate wet-dry county initiative to add an amendment to the state Constitution, on the November general election, that would make every county in the state wet or dry. To do so, Couch needs 78,000 signatures, with 5 percent of the voters in 15 different counties.

Couch's amendment would authorize "the manufacture, sale, distribution and transportation" of alcoholic beverages, as regulated by the state, in every county. 

Couch has submitted at least amendments to the attorney generals office, and the wording of at least one has been rejected.