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Ike Leggett’s County Liquor Monopoly Proposal: “Old Wine in a New Bottle”

Posted: January 2, 2017 at 12:59 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

By Mark Uncapher

Lame Duck County Executive Ike Leggett responded to intense pressure in 2016 from Montgomery County consumers, businesses, state legislators and even County Council members, with an offer to compromise on the county liquor monopoly’s status.  Faced with legislation that would have given voters the right to decide the Department of Liquor Control’s (DLC) fate, Leggett told business leaders he was willing to work with them and state legislators to come up with a unified proposal for the 2017 legislative session.

No Montgomery County government activity is harder to justify or to even explain, than the DLC’s unique monopoly. Maryland state law prohibits the county’s liquor sellers, retail stores and restaurants, from selling any alcohol not purchased from the county’s government operated monopoly. The DLC is one of county government’s most flagrant symbols of its hostile business climate.

In December 2015, the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee formally supported a referendum proposal.  In announcing the party position, Republican Chairman Michael Higgs put it succinctly: “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.”

Yet after nearly a year of failing to work with reform advocates to reach a consensus alternative, Leggett’s counter proposal simply sets up a new independent liquor authority with the exact same  monopoly over the almost all the county’s wholesale distribution of alcohol and the retail sale of liquor.  In fact, in a sop to the fiercest opponents of any real reform, Leggett’s proposal would also specifically protect the status of the DLC’s public employee union.

“So basically he is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Frank Shull, a partner in the RW Restaurant Group, which operates Bethesda restaurants such as Mussel Bar and Grille, Wildwood Kitchen and Villain & Saint told Bethesda Magazine “It’s ridiculous, it’s completely ridiculous. It makes no sense at all.”

Other business owners were no kinder. Arash Tafakor, owner of Downtown Crown Beer and Wine in Gaithersburg, one the largest beer and wine shops in the county, criticized both maintaining the monopoly and the process which led to the Leggett liquor control authority proposal:  “The task force was a joke, the residents of Montgomery County will still have to pay higher prices, still have limited selection and the beer and wine stores will still have a difficult time getting delivery.”[1]

County Council President Roger Berliner, who has supported ending the monopoly since late 2015, said Leggett’s proposal won’t fix the issues.  “For those of us that believe we need to end our liquor monopoly, this proposal is disappointing. In fact, it could represent a step backward—we retained the monopoly and have less accountability and that is not a good combination. The workforce remains the same, which makes it difficult to understand how it will be leaner or meaner.”

The Council joined its president in formally signaling that it would not to support state legislation creating Leggett’s liquor control authority.

State Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda), a leading state legislative reform advocate, described the plan: “This is not a proposal; it’s a white flag of surrender.  This does not even attempt to address the concerns of the small businesses or consumers.” Significantly, it was Frick who had initially called for a referendum to allow voters to decide whether to keep the monopoly. He later withdrew his referendum bill, partially in response to the Leggett offer to work on a compromise.

If there is any good news to report on the liquor monopoly issue, it is that Delegate Frick has told Bethesda Magazine that his referendum bill “is not off the table.” [2]

As was clearly established by the overwhelming victory by a vote of 69% to 31% of Question B term limits referendum in the November 2016 elections, Montgomery County voters are very much ready to upend the local political status quo when given the chance.