Idaho has some of the tightest state controls on liquor in the Union. The inability of a popular local restaurant to secure a full liquor license, which includes wine beer and spirits, has gotten much press and reaction from our community. Clearly the restrictions on the number of these full licenses and their ties to population count could use some updating, but there are other parts of our state liquor laws that are well thought out and protective of small business. Like most things in life there are the good parts of our laws and the bad parts, much of this judgment depends on perspective but the larger and more difficult issue is do they warrant changes and how do you get at changes that are needed while keeping the good parts intact.
The ties between population and the number of full liquor licenses available from the state could be easily dealt with. Just eliminate this part of the law. Supporters of limiting the number of licenses though fall into two groups. The rural parts of the state in the south and southeast section of Idaho fret about temperance and the effect on their populations with unfettered growth in licenses. Also existing license holders want to keep restrictions in place to protect the value of the licenses they hold. If growth of the number of licenses continues to be held in check it makes existing licenses worth even more. Prices on the secondary market for these licenses easily top $250,000, if there are no longer any restrictions those prices would plummet to the level the state sells them for, a significant hit to the net worth of the holders of the existing licenses.
Many alcohol consumers also advocate for the privatization of the state liquor stores. The idea is that if the sale of hard alcohol was put in the hands of private companies competition would flourish and prices would be driven down. Not so fast though. The notion that the State would simply let go of the revenue derived from the state owned stores is laughable. That revenue would need to be replaced; it would most likely be done through an increased sales tax on liquor akin to what was put in place in neighboring Washington. Check the all in prices there versus here in Idaho and you will likely feel much better about your cost here versus there.
How about the good parts of our state liquor laws? One of the great advantages to our laws is that all of us who sell alcohol pay the same price for it. Whether it be a big box store, a restaurant or a small retailer like the dinner party we all pay the same. Those prices are required to be posted with the state, and every one of us has the right to buy the bottles, cans and kegs that are listed with the state. This is one of the best and most vital parts of the law that supports small business.
By requiring that all of the same alcoholic beverages be made available to all businesses it prevents the small business killing trends that developed in Washington after proposition 1183 was passed. By making the sale of “private label” beverages by only one company illegal and leveling pricing for all it levels the playing field for big and small businesses alike. It also prevents the slew of private label “swill” from being foisted on consumers by mega retailers.
There are no doubt adjustments that could be made to our liquor laws that would improve access to liquor and allow restaurants and retailers to more easily thrive. Dismantling the existing laws from top to bottom though is ill advised. All of us in Idaho have a stake in what happens and opinions on what ought to happen vary widely. The best approach though may be the cautious one, one that will keep small businesses competitive and that preserve our liquor industry landscape, not allowing it to be dominated by only large companies who care little about the consumer and full access to the wide world of beverages. We only need to look to the west to see what damage can be done by an aggressive approach pushed to the fore by huge corporations that care little about the communities the operate in.
If there is a topic you would like to read about or if you have questions on wine, you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com, or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.
George Balling is co-owner (with his wife Mary Lancaster) of the dinner party, a wine and table top décor shop located by Costco in Coeur d’Alene. George worked as a judge in many wine competitions, and his articles are published around the country. You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. Be sure and check out our weekly blog at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com/home/blog-2. You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.