Throwing the baby out with the firewater

In a laughable attempt to balance the budget, Utah’s legislature is punishing one of the state’s few profitable agencies, presumably because it helps miscreants and moralists alike get drunk. The House and Senate passed a bill slashing the budget of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The bill requires that the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission cut their budget by 7.5%, or $2.2 million. This cut is significantly more drastic than cuts to most other state agencies. The legislation has not yet been signed into law by Governor Herbert, who wondered in his most recent Monthly News Conference on KUED-PBS, “If we’re making money, revenue over expenses, why would you close down a revenue source?”

The Commission, in upholding fiscal requirements by the legislature, will be forced to close 13 stores – including the ones in Orem and Provo, which are the two closest to this university – and cut hours at the stores remaining open.

The current legislature seems to ache for a return to pre-Huntsman near-prohibition, when revelers were required to jump through various outrageous hoops to get a little booze in their belly. Ex-governor John Huntsman dragged Utah’s outrageous liquor laws kicking and screaming towards the nation’s average, doing away with egregious per-drink limits and “private clubs.”

Now these laws are being dragged, once again kicking and screaming, back to the dark sober corners of the far right.

Legislators promoted this bill as making fiscal sense, but after looking at the numbers, the only conclusion is that our lawmakers are either lying or mathematically illiterate.

Each of the stores that are on the chopping block made the state a profit of at least $1 million last year and, in total, the stores that may be closing made $18.4 million last year.

To re-examine that statement: In order to save $2.5 million a year, the legislature is closing the doors to businesses that made them almost $20 million a year. That is a decision that none of us can drink to — in more than one sense.

State liquor stores are already sparse when compared to other “control states,” or states in which all liquor sales are regulated by the government rather than privatized. Most of the 19 other control states have more stores per citizen as well as more available shopping hours, meaning the existing stores are already often over-crowded with shoppers.

In addition, about 150 state employees are expected to lose their jobs if the cuts are made.

The majority of the profit from these stores goes into the state’s general budget. And, according to a March 20 interview with Commission member Sam Granato on KRCL’s Radioactive, 10% of the profits go to fund public school lunches. This means that funding for students’ lunches is also effectively being cut.

Certainly there are indirect costs to allowing citizens a swig or two – the risk of more traffic accidents, more unhealthy citizenry potentially getting medical aid on the government’s dime, more drunken homeless and unemployed Utahans and more. But compare these potential problems to the state’s monopolized hold on all liquor profits or to the tourism dollars spent on liquor that are likely to vanish into the ether when any effective consumption becomes too inconvenient. The available information makes no case for any financial savvy behind this legislation.

In addition to budget cuts, the legislature banned drink specials and ignored the desperate need for more fine dining and bar permits. They did, however, change 40 beer bar licenses into restaurant permits — which is a completely different realm of complicated nonsense.

Considering the profitability of liquor stores, it is easy and tempting to jump to the conclusion that the legislature’s choices are morally or religiously driven. Until the numbers begin to make sense on a fiscal level, it is the only conclusion.

To sign a petition against closing the Provo liquor store, visit the 7-Eleven near the store at 222 W. 300 S.

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