By Ken Markison.
Friends and family often ask me why I am so passionate about ending Montgomery County’s monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages and reforming its alcohol laws when I’m neither a beverage retailer nor a restaurant owner in the County.
So passionate in fact, that with my own funds, and some outstanding fellow County residents, I founded an organization named Voters Opposing County Alcohol Laws in Montgomery County or (VOCAL MOCO) with a brand-new website at https://vocalmoco.org/.
My passion stems from the fact that as a near life long–70 year—resident, I care deeply about this County as well as my own investment in it as a consumer, a newly-hatched small businessman and a taxpayer. I strongly support the County’s growth into a more diverse and dynamic community from the sparsely populated suburban/rural county of my youth. Nevertheless, I recognize its growth also has led to overcrowded schools, clogged transportation, shortages of affordable housing, and countless other challenges. For this reason, while I remain pro-growth, I strongly oppose counterproductive forces, like the antiquated alcohol monopoly, that not only dispirit consumers and businesses but also ultimately work to make the County’s economic future unsustainable.
Under laws established almost a century ago, right after America’s experiment with prohibition ended –when the County was largely rural and had a twentieth of its current population–the State conferred on the County a monopoly on alcohol sales. It came to cover the wholesale distribution of all alcoholic beverages to stores and restaurants as well as a retail monopoly on the sale of spirits to the public.
Under this system, the County’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC) buys spirits, wine and beer from manufacturers and distributors and then resells these products to restaurants and wine and beer to certain retailers, charging a markup.
County restaurants and beer and wine stores are required to order all their alcohol from the County regardless of whether private suppliers may offer greater variety, lower costs and better service. Consumers who wish to purchase spirits are confined to purchasing them only at a County liquor store. While certain retailers may sell beer and wine to consumers, other grocery stores as well as Costco, drug stores and convenience stores are not permitted to sell wine and beer in the County, except for a single store from each of four grocery chains.
Montgomery County is the only county in the DC metropolitan area – and in the State of Maryland – and among few jurisdictions in the Nation notably including Alabama and Mississippi—to have such a “control system.”
Consequently, businesses and consumers alike regard the County as retrograde and anti-business. Countless restaurant owners and retailers either fail in this County or avoid locating in it altogether because of the monopoly, thus depriving County consumers of choices, County residents of jobs and the revenue and taxes a healthy business environment brings.
Those restaurants and retail wine and beer businesses that came here anyway share countless horror stories about their interactions with the DLC, but they all have a common theme: the DLC makes it difficult for them to get the products their customers want at competitive prices.
Although complaints about the DLC’s process may decrease somewhat because of recent well-meaning efforts within the DLC to improve its operations, believing that is all that is needed misses the point. The real point is that virtually all affected businesses and consumers do not want their choices restricted and do not want to pay for or deal with the red tape of a government monopoly. So just putting lipstick on the pig won’t change this.
Because of the monopoly, County consumers leave the County in droves to enjoy the broad array of retail and restaurant choices that most of the country including our neighbors in the District and Northern Virginia take for granted. Montgomery consumers also want to enjoy the convenience of buying wine with their steak or salad in the grocery store or have the option of visiting Costco or Total Wine for a broad array of low-cost choices like their DMV counterparts.
Also, while the rest of the region and indeed the country are enjoying burgeoning start-up vineyards, craft breweries and even craft distilleries, Montgomery County residents generally must go elsewhere to enjoy them, too. In fact, the State legislature recently has made it more difficult for craft brewers to thrive.
Obviously, when taxpayers leave the County to spend their money, it hinders the County’s economy. It deprives County businesses of revenue, individuals who would work for County businesses of jobs, and the State of significant taxes. The absence of business growth, in fact, ultimately fuels the need for even higher taxes from individual taxpayers.
Two years ago, there was a major reform effort led by Delegate Bill Frick (D-16) and others in the State Legislature. At that time, all but one Member of the County Council–Roger Berliner–shrugged off the opposition from business and consumers to the County’s alcohol setup– citing the $25-30 million earned by alcohol sales as a reason to maintain the status quo, even though it’s a drop in the County’s now $5.6 billion budget. The Council also brushed aside the fact that the State’s Comptroller projects that much more revenue could be repatriated from County residents were the monopoly ended, a vibrant retail and restaurant market allowed to emerge, and County residents were not leaving in droves to buy alcohol elsewhere.
Many believe the real reason for the Council’s single mindedness resulted from the vociferous opposition of the employee union for the DLC, which has been a reliable Democratic voting bloc in a county where the election turnout in county elections is embarrassingly low.
While the views of the union and the DLC employees certainly should be considered in the debate, their views should not outweigh the countless other employees and potential employees who would gain employment were the County to gain more restaurants, private retailers as well as vineyards, breweries and distillers. Their views also should not outweigh the rest of the voters, consumers and businesses. As the debate moves forward, and based on voter interest this year it certainly will, VOCAL MOCO will work to bring greater focus to consumers, businesses and everyone else’s views and votes.
Moreover, no one should regard the efforts to end the monopoly and bring Montgomery into modern times as a simple choice between quality union jobs and reform. The fact is that most jobs in the private sector alcohol distribution industry are union jobs, albeit represented by unions other than the current employees’ union. Moreover, employees in white-collar jobs may be eligible to move to other Montgomery County jobs under existing programs.
Rather than simply handwringing, County leaders should be working on alternative funding sources and thoughtful plans for whatever employee transition is necessary if the monopoly ends. Regrettably, however, the DLC has been moving in a different direction and expanded its operations. This has to be stopped.
Also, if grocery stores and Costco are allowed to sell alcohol in the future, as they should be, the Council should be considering whether a phase in period to a freer market is warranted to ease the transition for smaller retailers.
VOCAL MOCO strongly believes it’s time to move forward and begin working toward giving up what’s hurt us in the past. I hope you will join VOCAL MOCO in this important work.