Friday, October 23, 2015

State has no incentive to license grocers to sell booze with the bagels

The supermarket giants have formally launched their push to put liquor in their stores. The reason is pretty easy to see – they’ll dump some lower-demand products and replace them with much more lucrative liquor sales. It’s not like King Soopers and Safeway are having financial problems; they want to plump up the bottom line the easiest way possible. It’s greed, pure and simple.

There is a fear, however, that this will drive independent liquor stores out of business and, as a side effect, squeeze out the microbreweries Colorado is known for. It’s a legitimate fear. Gov. John Hickenlooper, himself a microbrewer, has used the word "threat" to describe the campaign. Certainly, some of the local liquor store owners are feeling threatened; my occasional foray into town in search of corn-based refreshment almost always includes a new lament about fears the Legislature will "sell out" to the special interests. (Not that liquor store owners aren't themselves a special interest, no, no, no, they're just independent merchants trying to make a living.)

My sympathies in this are with Hick and the local booze purveyors. For the most part I’m a free market kind of guy, but it’s painful to watch big boxes at the edge of town suck commerce and jobs out of a community. It’s as if we sell the town’s soul for a little convenience.  And convenience is at the heart of this latest push. Quoted in The Denver Post, Kelli McGannon, mouthpiece for King Soopers made it clear that immigrants to Colorado value their time over our traditions:

"Our customers value time as much as money and are looking for convenience. Colorado's market has changed — Colorado is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and people are moving here from other states where this is something they had."

So there you have it: People coming to Colorado with no investment in that which makes this a great place to live are more than happy to trample our traditions to save themselves a few minutes in their busy, busy lives.

Fuck 'em.

I have no idea whether Wal-Mart wants to put whiskey on its shelves in my little town, and I have no plans to ask. I do know I'm tired of watching big box stores plop themselves down at the edge of town and sucking the life and soul out of the community in exchange for a little convenience. Logic tells us that this would be just another way for giants to fill their pockets while emptying local storefronts.

What I’m really hoping is we'll never find out. My hope is that the Colorado Legislature, as it always has in the past, will balk at the whole idea and resist the intense lobbying its members will suffer from the pro-liquor-in-supermarkets crowd. If the General Assembly blocks the move, the issue will almost certainly go on the 2016 ballot, but even if it passes there, the Legislature can still refuse to act on it; the referendum is only a strong suggestion at best. Laws have to be enacted by the lawmakers, and lawmakers are elected.

I suspect the pro-booze-with-groceries gang is counting on Colorado’s “liberal” bent in matters of recreational substances, vis-à-vis the marijuana vote and subsequent legalization. If so, they miss an important point: The pot is a new tax revenue source. Coloradans know we’re not going to be rid of TABOR any time soon, so we’re looking for ways to increase tax revenue without actually paying higher taxes. Weed returned $70 million in brand new revenue to state coffers in fiscal 2014 and promises to be an even bigger bonanza in years to come.

But liquor is already taxed. Some bump in tax revenue may come at first from impulse purchases, but that bump will fade as liquor sales move from local liquor stores to the grocery stores. The addition of liquor inspectors and staff to handle the surge in license applications, though, will be costly. Regulations will have to be re-written, lawyers hired and lawsuits settled, and all of that costs money. The whole proposition is all cost and no revenue; there is just no financial incentive for the state to rewrite the liquor laws to allow the stuff on Safeway’s shelves.

At the end of the day some of the larger independent liquor stores would survive the change because supermarkets aren’t going to carry the myriad specialty products and micro brews liquor stores sell, but it’s almost certain that small liquor retailers that are living on narrow margins now will close. And that’s the real cost of the proposition. It’s another way a community loses its soul. It’s a price we shouldn’t be willing to pay for a convenience we just don’t need.

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