Strong Public Support for Ending the County’s Wholesale Liquor Monopoly
By Mark Uncapher
Few, if any Montgomery County government activities, are harder to justify than the Department of Liquor Control’s (DLC) monopoly. Yet Maryland state law prohibits the county’s liquor sellers, retail stores and restaurants, from selling any alcohol not purchased from the county’s monopoly. The DLC is one of county government’s most flagrant symbols of its hostile business climate.
Jackie Greenbaum, owner of Jackie’s Restaurant and the Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring testified recently, saying that: “I’ve suffered for 12 long years under the current system and have vowed that I would never open another restaurant in Montgomery County.”
Frank Shull of restaurants such as the Mussel Bar and Brasserie Beck has said that restaurants “don’t want to have to deal with the DLC. It is the evil empire to most people in the business. No one is held responsible, we can’t get product, and it makes it very hard to do business.”
The DLC has a well-documented track record of corruption. Local television’s News 4 I-Team spent six months investigating the DLC. Their report uncovered the fact that two-thirds of businesses were being “shorted” in their deliveries. From this merchandise, county employees were then selling the “skimmed” inventory on the black market.
One store owner explained how county deliverymen try to sell beer under the table, asking for cash for extra cases on their truck. As a result of the news coverage, at least four deliverymen were fired and another quit. Outside audits highly critical of the DLC inventory control process are yet another measure of the DLC’s continuing mismanagement.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, the state’s top enforcer of alcohol laws and a DLC critic, recently commissioned an opinion poll demonstrating massive public opposition to the liquor monopoly. Among those answering the question, Do you favor or oppose a proposal to get rid of the laws making Montgomery County an alcohol controlled county, 69% support eliminating it, with slightly higher levels of support for repeal–74%–among people who describe themselves as definite voters.
This issue unites Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Regardless of political affiliation or ideological orientation, overwhelming support in the county exists for change. I fact, it has the support of 67 percent of Democrats, conservatives and Republicans.
State Delegate Bill Frick (D-16) is sponsoring a bill authorizing a 2016 referendum allowing voters to decide whether to allow alcohol establishments to buy directly from private distributors. Frick’s proposal would not require the county to exit the alcohol business altogether, allowing it to continue to distribute alcohol to licensees and operate its 25 retail stores. However, the DLC would have to compete, with privately-owned beer and wine stores and restaurants free to purchase from private distributors if they chose to.
Earlier this month the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee came out in support of the referendum proposal. In making this announcement, Chairman Michael Higgs said “It is time for Montgomery County voters to decide whether to free our restaurants and catering industry from having to purchase liquor only from a government bureaucracy. Let’s join the rest of the country and allow private distributors.”
However whether the bill moves forward is an open question, despite this strong public support. On the other side of the liquor monopoly issue is one of the county’s most powerful unions. UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents about 8,000 county government employees, including about 350 DLC employees, rallied its members to pack a November public hearing:
“We need you on November 30 to say no to privatizing DLC,” the email said. “We can’t let 350 union jobs, $35 million in annual revenue slip away… . WE MUST PACK THE HOUSE. Protect our jobs and our county.”
The union response reflects some very telling admissions. First, if faced with any competition, the union does not think DLC would be unable to survive. Second, the primary reason for keeping the DLC’s monopoly is to preserve Local 1994’s jobs. And finally, the union understands that with public opinion so strongly against them, the DLC would likely lose a referendum.