Politics

Free the Alcohol! (and save your budget?)

Photo of Mary Katharine Ham
Mary Katharine Ham
Contributor

In many American cities, budget crunches have whet local politicians’ appetites for larding up their ledgers with new taxes and fees on anything they can find—sin taxes on soda, cigarettestattoos and strippers.

But in a few places, local governments are finding that more freedom might just mean more cash for them, removing barriers to business might be a boon to local coffers.

The New York Times reports 12 states have raised alcohol taxes—boo!—but Georgia is taking a different tack by considering repealing outdated blue laws:

In November, voters in Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia will decide whether to repeal colonial-era laws that ban alcohol sales on Sunday.

Right now, Georgia (also Connecticut and Indiana) prohibits sale of any alcohol in a store on Sunday. In some sad cases, such as my college town, sales stopped on Saturday night, producing block-long lines of desperate college students at the gas station around 10 p.m.

The roots of the ban are religious, and the law was defended for years by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who vowed to veto any legislation that tried to change it. When Gov. Nathan Deal took office this year, lawmakers overrode opposition by religious groups and some rural legislators and wrote a law allowing local governments to put the question of Sunday sales to a vote.

On Nov. 8, nearly 100 Georgia cities and counties will hold referendums on the issue. For Atlanta, expanding liquor laws is about economic stimulation and modernity, said Kwanza Hall, a member of the City Council who is also trying to get the hours one can pour drinks extended to 4 a.m.

In Tennessee, tourists may finally be able to actually sample Jack Daniel’s when they tour the historic distillery in the little town of Lynchburg.

In Tennessee, changes to the alcohol laws were intended as economic stimulus, but of a different sort. In an effort to attract a large out-of-state brewer and as a way to help local makers of craft-style beers, the state now allows high-alcohol beers like stouts and barley wines to be produced under certain circumstances.

The new law also made it legal for microbreweries and stores that sell alcohol to offer samples. That is good news for fans of Jack Daniel’s, who now might be able to actually taste the state’s famous whiskey when they tour the plant, which is located in a dry county.

Tennessee is the eighth state to pass legislation allowing liquor tastings since 2009.

Predictably, the public health official the NYT interviewed is not a fan of this outbreak of freedom:

“Lawmakers are taking a very short-sided view,” said David Jernigan, director of theCenter on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “What they gain in short-term tax revenue they are losing in long-term police costs, emergency room costs and work-force readiness costs in terms of the Monday morning effect.”

Like many public health officials, Mr. Jernigan does not support government efforts that increase the availability of alcohol, but he does support raising sales tax as a way to make people drink less.

West Virginia University is trying beer sales inside its football stadium this year, and netted $75,000 from the first game.

Improbably, even California is getting into the freedom fun. The state repealed a Prohibition-Era law this week that made mixologists into criminals:

Aficionados of cocktails infused with fruit, vegetable or spice flavors won a political victory when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill making them legal…

The updating of the law was sought by a coalition of business and tourist industry groups including the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn., the California Chamber of Commerce, the Family Wine Makers of California and the California Restaurant Assn.

“I’m pleased that the governor has recognized the need to update an unnecessary regulation that has prevented businesses across California from making infused beverages available to their customers,” the bill’s author, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), said Wednesday.

The bill passed unanimously.

So, raise a glass to freedom, bureaucrats, and you might just raise your revenues!

Now, if only Virginia could get to work on this:

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