April 07, 2020

The second session of the Legislature begins today with a bill that would cancel funding for liquor stores along the Maine Turnpike and another to get the state out of the liquor business altogether. We’ll drink to that.

The issue is older than well-aged scotch, and its details haven’t changed much over the years: Supporters say keeping the state in the business preserves good-paying jobs and gives the state greater control of liquor sales; opponents say it is expensive and unnecessary — the state does not have to actually sell the booze to control it. Maine has slowly been reducing the number of stores it owns, but has been unable to completely shake itself free of the business.

It should, and now is a particularly good time to do it. Savings from removing the state from the retail and wholesale liquor sales, as LD 1799 would do, are estimated at between $6 million and $8 million annually. Because of the state budget surplus, the Legislature gets to contemplate that savings in the absence of crisis. It gets to make the decision to save taxpayer money not to immediately fill a hole elsewhere in the budget but simply because the money need not be spent.

Supporters of the state liquor stores will say the savings are illusory. But they will also say that liquor-store wages will be lower in the private sector than in the public and that liquor sales, based on competition and advertising, will increase significantly. Add to that the savings that come from relieving the state from the obligation to maintain facilities or rent expensive space. No one likes to see workers losing money, if, in fact, they would, but the result looks very much like a significant savings.

The highway-liquor sales are even easier. The bill before lawmakers, LD 1846, would cancel authorization for two discount liquor stores at exit 3 and would stop any store from being established in the future along the highway. This bill, presented by Rep. James Donnelly of Presque Isle, is valuable for two reasons. First, because it would stop Maine from being further involved in a business it should be getting out of and, second, because it would push liquor further away from the place it has proved especially dangerous — the highway.

Maine has no more reason to be in the liquor business than it has owning pharmacies or oil dealerships or pest-control businesses. All deal with products that need to be watched over and controlled. All but liquor stores are run well privately. That alone is an excellent reason to cancel funding for liquor stores along the Maine Turnpike and to plan the end of all state participation in liquor sales.

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