Columns » Max Brantley

Are spirits high with Arkansas voters?

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Late last week, the secretary of state certified the signatures on a proposed constitutional amendment to permit alcohol sales in all 75 counties.

For years, an unholy alliance of church lobbyists and liquor retailers combined to make it hard for working class people to buy a drink in the majority of counties in Arkansas.

When I say liquor retailers, I refer primarily to the "county line liquor stores" that sit in wet counties on the outskirts of dry populous areas, such as Faulkner, Saline and Craighead counties.

To keep the preachers and the county line monopolists happy, the legislature kept making it harder to petition for a local option election to go wet. A 1993 law moved the standard to 38 percent of registered voters. It didn't stop some determined tipplers and retailers, including in Benton County and Clark County.

Walmart put a million bucks into petition drives in Faulkner, Craighead and Saline this year and made the cut in only one — Saline, and then barely.

But a Little Rock lawyer, David Couch, had a bright idea. With all these paid canvassers in the field, why not take a shot at bypassing the local option and going statewide? A grocery chain and several convenience store chains liked his plan. Where 66,000 signatures were needed to qualify local option votes in the three targeted counties, Couch's statewide committee needed only 78,133 to get the whole state on the ballot and end dry precincts once and for all. Backers spent $200,000 to get this far, less than county line liquor stores spent trying to beat the Faulkner County petitions.

I can't recall a losing "wet" election. Prohibitionists long ago lost the hearts and minds of America.

Indeed, drinks are already available statewide, if sometimes only at "private clubs." A 2003 law by Conway Rep. Betty Pickett loosened rules to sham status for private clubs in the name of economic development.

I'm for statewide availability of a six-pack at the grocery store. I'm confident voters will approve it if a legal challenge doesn't disqualify the measure.

Meanwhile, could this proposal affect other races? Republicans think any issue with proven appeal among conservative churchgoers is a plus for their side. But will a booze sale proposition draw people who otherwise wouldn't have voted? I'm skeptical. I'd guess retail sales might just as readily encourage beer-swilling slackers to exercise the franchise for once.

It's a good time to mention that I'm also skeptical of the minimum wage referendum as a get-out-the-vote tool. But it's still a strong popular issue for Democrats against Republicans, who oppose it.

What about booze sales? I think it would be a good voter issue, too, but I doubt few politicians will use it.

Here's the worst argument against an end to crazy-quilt alcohol prohibition — a supposed injustice in depriving select jurisdictions of their ability to impose their religion on others.

The legislature long ago took away home rule on gun laws. Would it allow select Catholic precincts to outlaw abortion and capital punishment for crimes committed within their borders? I hope not.

I grant you it's fun to dream of the free state of Hillcrest. In my liberal neighborhood, with fully realized local option, you could buy a jug of Rhone wine on Sunday. We would not fear open carry of AR-15s. Abortion would be safe, legal and rare because our schools would be required to teach comprehensive sex education and our pharmacies would provide over-the-counter morning-after pills as well as a full-range of contraceptives. Same-sex couples could marry and they could not be discriminated against in employment.

If you really believe in local option, why stop at alcohol?

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