Commentary

Christensen: ABC stores’ approach: Don’t come in here, you lush

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJanuary 11, 2014 

When he was preparing to run for governor, Pat McCrory called North Carolina’s government-run liquor stores part of Raleigh’s “culture of corruption” and said the state needed to privatize its liquor assets.

He argued that then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, and the state legislature should get North Carolina out of the liquor business entirely, by transferring the sale of liquor to the private sector.

Perdue seriously considered privatization in 2011. But she couldn’t pull the trigger, saying she didn’t want to go into her Harris Teeter and see bottles of gin and vodka on the shelves. (I am not sure how this differs from seeing bottles of beer or wine on the shelves, but whatever.)

Perdue estimated that privatization could bring the state $1 billion.

When McCrory mentioned the “cronyism” of the Alcoholic Beverage Control system, he was talking about a series of controversies including a lavish dinner for local ABC board members in Charlotte paid for by a liquor company and large salaries for top ABC administrators in Wilmington.

But really the ABC system is more about the culture of Prohibitionism and Baptists.

Bible Belt attitude

The whole system, created in 1937, is based on conflicted ideas. Do the 418 ABC stores sell liquor, or do they control it? They are not quite sure. And it reflects the state’s Bible Belt attitude toward booze.

The state’s ABC stores have a bare bones ambience that all but shouts: “Don’t come in here, you lush!” The selection is pitiful. The prices are high. The clerks unhelpful. Sales? Forget about it.

At one time the Wake County ABC stores had unlisted telephone numbers. When I asked the then-head of the Wake ABC system about it, he replied that he didn’t want his clerks disturbed.

Can you imagine a Hudson Belk department store operating that way?

There are three ABC stores in the town of Cary, a town of 145,693, which means there is one store per 48,564 people. There are, by comparison, 10 Starbucks in Cary. Thank goodness the state of North Carolina is not worried about us being over-caffeinated.

Like Gov. Gifford Pinchot said in setting up a similar system in Pennsylvania back in the 1930s, it is a system designed to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and as expensive as possible.”

Punitive tax system

Our scarletletter system of selling booze is also part of a punitive tax system. While our legislators worry all the time about whether our millionaires pay more taxes than the millionaires in Virginia or South Carolina, we tax the heck out of the working Joe who buys a drink. After all, shouldn’t he be putting that money in the collection plate?

So North Carolina’s excise tax rate for spirits is the fifth-highest in the nation and more than double what it is in South Carolina, triple what it is in Tennessee and quadruple what it is in Georgia. The excise tax on beer in North Carolina is the ninth-highest in the nation and is more than double what it is in Virginia.

It seems that social conservatives think it’s OK to use state tax policy for social engineering after all.

But libertarian conservatives are troubled by the state control of booze.

Last year, the the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, a Raleigh-based conservative think tank, issued a report questioning whether the current system might violate the state constitution’s ban on monopolies.

“To tolerate a government-sanctioned monopoly by any entity, including the state itself,” said the report, “is ‘contrary to the genius of a free state,’ according to the common sense of our Constitution.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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