August 23, 2019

League opposes liquor store plan> Group fears increase in drinking in Maine

AUGUSTA — Fearing an increase in public alcohol consumption, the Christian Civic League will likely oppose Gov. Angus S. King’s plan to privatize the state’s 28 remaining liquor stores.

The governor announced Wednesday that he would be closing the stores to save money needed to balance his proposed $3.78 billion two-year operating budget for the state. Closing the stores would lay off 110 employees and save $8.5 million.

Michael Heath, the league’s executive director, said Thursday that his board will discuss the issue of closing the remaining stores. The group will likely resist the plan, he said, on the basis that privatizing the liquor business would increase public consumption.

The league opposed the same proposal in March when the plan failed in the 117th Legislature. Heath had hoped King would have attempted to gather some statistical data from other states about what happens when state-run liquor operations are transferred to the private sector.

Thus far, he said, that hasn’t happened.

“Our view is that we ought not to close the remaining stores if it’s going to increase consumption or problems associated with drinking,” he said. “Some studies suggest there is a correlation between access and the amount of consumption. We wanted to have that question studied.”

Currently, many supermarkets and small stores are permitted to sell liquor through agency store agreements with larger state liquor stores operating in Maine’s population centers.

Maine’s liquor business brings in more than $20 million annually to the state and it was the loss of those revenues — rather than concern over consumption — that weighed heaviest on some legislators’ minds last March.

Worried about diminished control, loss of revenues and the ability of smaller agency stores to compete with larger chains, lawmakers gave scant support to King’s original plan that would have:

Eliminated fixed minimum profit margins for liquor, currently set at 8 percent for agency stores.

Boosted the costs of license renewals for agency stores from $300 to $1,000.

Increased the amount of edible merchandise on the premises of an agency store from $1,000 worth of products to $5,000.

Heath wants to see considerably more attention focused on the potential for increased alcohol consumption next year than in the last Legislature.

He is also concerned about imposing inadequate limits on advertising for the products, reasoning that the market will be under pressure to sell its inventory and will therefore advertise aggressively.

Ultimately, Heath said, legislators might want to consider that control of public access was one of the principle reasons Maine got into the liquor business in the first place.

Heath hasn’t identified any new trends indicating that alcohol consumption is declining in Maine and he questioned whether now is the right time for the state to let down its guard.

“It’s kind of akin to a prescription drug; you can’t go anywhere to buy a prescription drug,” he said. “But cultural attitudes toward alcohol have changed and as it has changed, you’ve seen an increasing amount of drinking and an increasing amount of problems.”

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