Idaho's liquor privatization issue promises regional split

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I read that liquor privatization won't be an issue in what remains of this year's legislative session in Boise. When the issue does finally come up for serious consideration, however, it's not unlikely northern Idahoans will favor privatization more than fellow Idahoans in either the southwestern or southeastern parts of the state. Debate about alcohol tends to bring out the state's geo-political sectionalism.

This split in sentiment has a history. It was reflected, for example, in Idaho's special plebiscite ratifying the repeal of national prohibition, held on Sept. 19, 1933. Fully 58 percent of Idaho's electorate favored repeal in that election. But there were striking differences in the tallies across Idaho's counties. Nine of Idaho's 44 counties (Bear Lake, Bingham, Canyon, Cassia, Franklin, Fremont, Madison, Oneida, and Payette) actually opposed repeal, all nine in the state's south. Among the 14 Idaho counties casting at least 2,000 votes on the question, the pro-repeal vote ranged from a whopping 89.8 percent in favor in ultra-wet Shoshone County, in the north, to under 20 percent in ultra-dry Franklin County, in Idaho's southeastern corner. Among these same 14 more populous counties, all four of the top pro-repeal counties were in northern Idaho (see table).

Idaho's special election in September 1933 did not directly ratify the 21st Amendment. Instead the vote elected county representatives or delegates to attend a special state convention on repeal, which was held in Boise the following month. Ironically, ultra-wet Shoshone County's elected delegate, mining executive Donald A. Callahan, could not attend, the only elected delegate to miss the convention. In an apologetic letter to the convention's chair, Callahan explained he was obliged to be in New York for a hearing on codes governing the lead and zinc industry. But Callahan also took the opportunity to make a suggestion to the convention. He proposed that a special commission be created to study the question of liquor control in the state in detail. In reference to the state's legislative election in 1934, Callahan expressed concerns about that body's capacity to deal with the liquor issue wisely. "I do not believe we should leave the preparation of such legislation to chance," wrote Callahan, "nor that we should do nothing until a legislature has been elected. You know that this legislature will not be chosen because of its particular fitness to handle questions of this kind. You know that very few of its members will have given serious thought to the problems which the repeal of prohibition legislation will bring about."

Idaho Governor C. Ben Ross announced his intention to appoint an advisory commission on the liquor control question in January 1934. At that moment, legal liquor sales were still more than a year away in the state's future. A couple of big hurdles had to be surmounted first. Voters had to repeal Idaho's state constitutional prohibition provision, passed in 1916. That task was accomplished in the state's November, 1934 general election. Next, the state legislature had to take up the issue of how newly re-legalized liquor sales would be structured. The governor's Liquor Advisory Commission, which turned out to be a dry-leaning body, suggested a bill permitting privately owned liquor stores and a continuing ban on the saloon in Idaho. The legislature also considered a half-dozen other options, each with its own backers and arguments. Debate on the issue was contentious, drawn-out, and divisive. One ultimately unsuccessful bill, doubtless reflecting a recognition of sharp regional differences on the issue, suggested establishing five specially constituted districts in the state, each able to conform its liquor control set-up to local wishes. Another suggested simply reinstalling statewide prohibition. It wasn't until March, 1935 that the legislature finally settled upon a state-owned stores system.

James B. Weatherby and Randy Stapilus, authors of Governing Idaho: People, Politics, and Power (Caxton Press, 2005), cited differences in liquor control preferences as one of the manifestations Idaho's enduring regionalism. They wrote:

Generally, legislators from northern Idaho have fought for privatization, while eastern Idahoans have backed the state monopoly. Lawmakers also have clashed over quotas on issuance of liquor licenses and distribution of liquor profits. Individualistic northern Idahoans prefer the market determining the number of licenses. Moralistic southern Idahoans prefer the more closed quota system.

When the issue ripens, perhaps in a year or so, it should be interesting to watch a new round of debate on liquor in Idaho playing out across the state's distinctively different geo-political regions.

Ron Roizen is a resident of Wallace.

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