Alcohol

Better Booze in Virginia, At Last?

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boozehounders

Liquor stores in Virginia are terrible. They're owned and operated by the commonwealth's Department Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), and if you're looking for anything snootier or more unusual than Maker's Mark, you're probably SOL. The lighting is bleak. The clerks have all the enthusiasm for their product of middling DMV employees. (Come to think of it, DMV employees may actually be more enthusiastic about the work+hooch combo than ABC staff.) And the hours are inconvenient.

But serious Old Dominion boozehounds see a ray of hope in their tequila sunrises: Former state attorney general and current Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell proposed privatizing the whole mess in a press conference yesterday, conducted (seriously!) in a parking garage.

The idea is win-win. End 75 years of incompetent state alcohol sales management and the state gets a bunch of cash for transportation spending when it sells off the rights to run a private liquor store.

In case you're waffling on whether this is a good idea, go spend 5 minutes on Virginia's weirdly self-congratulatory booze biz website. Historic photos celebrate milestones. Like 1970, when the first lady clerk, Betty Wilson, was hired. Thank goodness government was running that rum, how would we have achieved gender equality otherwise? (Note: I think the guy in my local liquor store in nearby Alexandria is still wearing her coat.) Lady boozemongers were an innovation that appeared just a couple of years after Virginia started licensing sales of "liquor by the drink" in bars.

In its early history, Virginia ABC agents were also enforcers of anti-bootlegging and moonshining laws, allowing the government run stores to deal very effectively with private competition.

Get a shot of wonkery on package store privatization over at the Reason Foundation blog.

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  1. Maybe NC will wise up and dump their ABC crap.

  2. But serious Old Dominion boozehounds see a ray of hope in their tequila sunrises: Former state attorney general and current Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell proposed privatizing the whole mess in a press conference yesterday, conducted (seriously!) in a parking garage.

    Won’t happen. I take you didn’t get the memo: There’s a drug war on.

    Same exact system here in Wa state. Came up for public vote some years ago, public voted it down because the state said “The mob” would run liquor if it was privatized. I never knew Safeway and Albertsons were mob operations, but hey.

    The state will never. let. this. go.

    Get over it, set your sights on something you can win. Like having your garbage service moved back to Fridays or something.

  3. I’m underwhelmed. Privatizing liquor stores is just transferring a monopoly from the state to some lucky (read connected) business. Not sure that it’s much of an improvement.

    If they want to privatize liquor sales, just close the liquor stores and let grocery stores, convenience stores, and the like sell it. Of course that won’t raise any money for the state (or not enough anyway) so they want to sell of the liquor stores instead? But those stores only have value if they continue to be a limited, government guaranteed monopoly. I guess to the extent that some private organization will be more efficient than the Commonwealth, it’s marginally better, but really, privatization needs to mean more than simply transferring monopoly rights from the state to a private business.

    And then there’s this:

    Mr. Obenshain said privatization would bring millions of additional dollars to the state, especially if the plan included licensing of valuable liquor distributorships.

    So the state is still going to control both the wholesale and retail market, just by licensing instead of ownership. Not too impressive from a libertarian standpoint.

  4. Sounds like the same thing Ohio did a few years ago. Ohio now licenses a few agents to sell liquor on consignment. The agent gets a big 4% off the top to pay for floor space, labor, etc. The rest goes to the state. Don’t even think of using a credit/debit card to pay for booze-cash only.

    The clerks are definitely friendlier, though…

  5. Almost 80 years after Prohibition ended, and we’ve still got crap like this to deal with. And yet some people think that marijuana legalization might be around the corner…

  6. What’s wrong with Maker’s Mark? It drinks just fine, don’t it?

  7. Wow, props to McDonnell, I used to live in VA and that is a big deal there, and his proposal sounds like a step in the right direction.

  8. Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg have a great video on the Virginia ABC
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3KQVRQIvKs

  9. ChrisO – you hit the nail on the head. what amazes me is that people need to pay half-million dollar ‘fees’ (read: legal bribe) to local officials for a license to even sell booze in the first place. that’s $500,000 just to be able to open your business legally. it’s just social engineering through economic sanctions.

  10. Don’t ‘privatize’. Just close the state stores after holding a firewater goin’ out of business sale and let any and all get into the liquor business subject to usual business tax procedures. No 3 step distribution, no mandated hours of operation, set my booze free.

  11. I still shake my head whenever I consider the fact that it’s 2009 and there are still such tight restrictions on selling something that just about everyone consumes.

    Between Blue laws and state owned liquor stores, to restrictions on buying beer in non case form (Im looking at you PA) sometimes I think it’s 1909 instead of 2009

  12. Not perfect, sure, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    He also proposed raising the speed limit to 70mph on more of VA’s interstates.

  13. I’ve dealt with state liquor store in far too many states. They suck. All of them. Every single time you shop in one you grow a little more hatred for government.

    Maybe, in a perverse way, they are good for advancing libertarianism.

  14. I’m underwhelmed. Privatizing liquor stores is just transferring a monopoly from the state to some lucky (read connected) business. Not sure that it’s much of an improvement.

    Not necessarily. Here in Rhode Island, alcohol can only be sold in specially-designated stores (i.e. not grocery or convenience stores), but no business has anything close to a monopoly on liquor sales in the state. There are tiny package stores and gigantic alcohol stores all owned by different companies. The only thing that the stores have to deal with are the occasional headaches with the local towns, which control liquor license distribution; some are friendly and some are not.

  15. Between Blue laws and state owned liquor stores, to restrictions on buying beer in non case form (Im looking at you PA) sometimes I think it’s 1909 instead of 2009

    And not being able to buy beer past 2:30 in the morning (here in Oregon – and forget hard alcohol past about 7:00 PM in most of our State liquor stores)… what’s up with that? Nothing like having to make a mad drunken dash to the Circle K after they kick you out of the bars about 2:15 in order to get beer for the after-party. 🙂

  16. Not perfect, sure, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Good point. MADD and the anti-smoking zealots didn’t succeed in onne fell swoop. One step at a time is the way shit gets done in a representative democracy.

  17. Finally, a Republican with a clue. Hooray!

  18. Not necessarily. Here in Rhode Island, alcohol can only be sold in specially-designated stores (i.e. not grocery or convenience stores), but no business has anything close to a monopoly on liquor sales in the state.

    True, but the ability of the State to extort, er, raise large amounts of money from selling licenses is tied to the exclusivity they provide. Since raising money seems to be the goal, I presume the state would artificially restrict the number of licenses it sells (in fact, the article says essentially this – the legislature will determine how many to sell). That is what I meant by monopoly (a bit loosely I admit) – not necessarily a single company for the whole state, but enough restriction on licensing to provide protection to those lucky enough to get the licenses.

  19. It’s weird to me that several southern states mentioned have this draconian system. It’s like the reverse of here in NY, where alchohol is easy to get from your friendly neighborhood liquor store (there are a couple blue laws left, but nothing terribly onerous for the consumer), but smokes are fast becoming regulated away. I wouldn’t be surprised to see government run smoke-shops in NYS someday soon.

  20. Dothan, Alabama just voted to allow alcohol sales on Sunday. By the drink, only for on premises consumption. It is still illegal to buy it on sunday statewide to take home. Oh, and Houston county just passed an ordinance to ban any new titty bars from serving alcohol. Existing ones have been grandfathered in so folks don’t lose their job in these tough economic times. If an existing strip club changes ownership or loses their liquor license, they can no longer serve alcohol.

  21. That is what I meant by monopoly (a bit loosely I admit) – not necessarily a single company for the whole state, but enough restriction on licensing to provide protection to those lucky enough to get the licenses.

    Gotcha. I tend to like the RI system, with individual communities having plenary control over licenses; it’s just that one small step away from actual free market. Many of our towns have tons of alcohol stores, while one or two (Barrington comes to mind) are still technically dry towns. The fees for the license are nominal, so the only real obstacle for a new store or bar is how puritanical the locals tend to be.

  22. Contrary to several comments posted here, Virginia’s state owned liquor stores have nothing to do with prohibition or blue laws and everything to do with revenue.

    The state has a monopoly on the sale of distilled beverages, keeps all profits and has no problem collecting taxes. The result, as in any monopoly, is less selection and higher prices.

    Personally, I think the time has come for the state monopoly to end, and popular opinion suggests that it may.

  23. How do you people in these states put up with this? At least we’re doing something right here in California. I refuse to live in a state where Bevmo is against the law.

  24. I voted for Creigh Deeds in the primary, but looks like Bob M. will get my vote come November. For once, a politician makes sense.

    [My favorite line of the post was “The lighting is bleak.” Walking into an ABC store in the Old Dominion is like walking into some oddly colored-flourescent twilight zone. The only redeeming value of the stores is being surrounded by nothing but hard liquor. No lighters, no cigarettes, no chewing gum, no condoms. A 100% swift kick in the nuts to the 18th amendment.]

  25. kilroy | July 22, 2009, 5:03pm | #
    Maybe NC will wise up and dump their ABC crap.

    True that, but I have to admit, unlike Katherine’s report on Virginia, The clerks have all the enthusiasm for their product of middling DMV employees at the closest ABC store in my town, the employees treat me like a king, and they love to banter.

  26. How do you people in these states put up with this? At least we’re doing something right here in California. I refuse to live in a state where Bevmo is against the law.

    You got white lightning? Seriously, I’m curious. How difficult would it be to get illicit liquor in California? Potent stuff with mild hallucinogenic properties?

  27. alan, from what i hear;) the good stuff runs ten bucks a quart here.

  28. Marked up from that here, from what I hear 😉 because the fire chief in one of the nearby communities, so it has been said, has a bit of a monopoly. However, a mere twenty minute drive away and ten for a quart is about the right price.

  29. One of the dumb things about Virginia. Though still nowhere near as bad as that shithole known as Maryland.

    We put that river there to keep those fuckers out.

  30. Virginia girls are better looking than Maryland girls, not as much crabs going around either.

  31. I moved from PA to VA, so I thought the alcohol laws here were free-wheelin’! I mean, you can buy beer and wine right in the supermarket.

  32. I agree about privatizing, but must give a shout out to the guys in my local Va ABC store–helpful and knowledgable. Go figure. If we did privatize, I hope they’d convey.

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