Category Archives: alcohol

Barkley Blasts Annapolis

By Adam Pagnucco.

Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39) has just given the most astounding interview by a member of General Assembly leadership ever seen by your author.  In it, he broke the most important rule of Annapolis decorum there is: never throw your superiors under the bus.

Barkley is the Chair of the House Economic Matters Committee’s Alcoholic Beverages Subcommittee.   In theory, that makes him the proximate point person on alcohol bills in the House.  Some think of the alcohol industry as one industry, but in fact it is several, with the manufacturers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and several individual companies hiring their own lobbyists and making tons of political contributions.  That makes for complicated politics which, among many other things, has produced the much-criticized bill punishing craft breweries.  That bill has already caused one potential brewery owner to bail on the state.

The anti-brewery bill passed the House on a 139-0 vote.  One source tells us, “When a bad bill passes on a vote like that, someone f____d up.”  In an incredible interview with Maryland beer blog Naptown Pint, Barkley placed the blame on his superiors, specifically Economic Matters Committee Chair Dereck Davis and Speaker of the House Mike Busch.  The whole interview is a massive scoop and a must-read, but the key passages are this:

“We didn’t know what was in the bill until the day it came in front of our committee for the vote,” Barkley answered. But was that due to the rush of the process, or was it an intentional screen being put up around the bill’s contents?

“I don’t think they were trying to give out too many details,” he commented…

“I honestly thought we were moving in the right direction with Nick Manis [MCA], Steve Wise [MSLBA legal counsel] and [Jack] Milani [MSLBA, Monaghan’s Pub in Baltimore]. We thought we were making progress, and we had the guys talking to us.”

Barkley then paused for a moment.

“All of a sudden, they quit talking to us,” he continued. “And then the [Economic Matters Committee] Chairman [Dereck E. Davis] said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”…

I asked him his thoughts on some of the statements by House members who voted in favor of HB 1283 that they now know it was a bad bill or that they were misled on the contents ahead of the committee vote that pushed HB 1283 over to the Senate.

“I would say absolutely they were misled. [The House] thought we worked out a compromise and this was it. We hadn’t,” he stated.

“Up until this point, I ran the subcommittee and I kept my chairman [Davis] informed. But this one left my hands. I’ve never had this kind of intervention before, until this year. I thought [Manis, Wise and Milani] were meeting with us. But I think we were getting too close to stuff they didn’t want. So I think they met with the Speaker and got things changed.”

Here is a sub-committee chair describing a major bill as a backroom, secret deal involving lobbyists, a powerful committee chair and the Speaker in cahoots to deceive the full House membership.  Your author has never seen a state legislator entrusted with leadership responsibility go on the record in this way before.  It is an almost certain firing offense.

Barkley has always been something of a maverick.  Once a Vice-President of the county teachers union, he has not always been their best friend in Annapolis.  In 2009, he was famously kicked off the Appropriations Committee and lost a subcommittee chair for defying leadership on the millionaire tax.  In 2012, Barkley was one of a handful of MoCo Delegates to vote against the immensely damaging teacher pension shift, a top priority of Governor Martin O’Malley and the presiding officers.  After losing the first vote, he introduced a floor amendment to the budget which would have cut the shift in half, which also failed.  Considering this record, it’s surprising that Barkley acquired the alcohol subcommittee chair at all.

Barkley’s candor is likely aided by his apparent decision to leave Annapolis and run for County Council.  We don’t know what the future holds, but we will say this: given Barkley’s iconoclastic ways, he would make an interesting County Council Member.

Is Maryland Trying to Punish Craft Breweries?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Craft breweries have been growing rapidly in Maryland and elsewhere, forever changing the beer business.  Maryland scored a huge win a couple months ago when Diageo announced their intention to open a $50 million Guinness brewery in Baltimore County, creating a tourist attraction and dozens of jobs.  Best of all, unlike many employers, Diageo is not asking for one thin dime of public subsidy to come to the state.  But instead of welcoming the new facility with open arms, the House of Delegates reacted by making it harder for Diageo to do business here, as well as many other breweries in Maryland.

The debacle began when Diageo asked for a change in state law to allow them to sell 5,000 barrels of beer at a restaurant and tap room on the brewery site.  (Maryland’s current limit of 500 barrels is by far the lowest in the nation; the second-lowest state, North Carolina, has a limit of 25,000 barrels.)  Other brewers sought a limit of 4,000 barrels in on-site sales for their own operations and five different bills followed.  HB 1283 was the one that passed the House of Delegates and did three main things.

  1. It increased the on-site sales limit to 2,000 barrels. Breweries could apply to the Comptroller for permission to sell another 1,000 barrels on-site, but they would have to go through a distributor to do so.  That means the brewery would have to brew its own beer, then turn it over to a distributor, then receive it back from that distributor and of course pay the distributor a fee for its service.  Guess who ultimately pays that fee?  That’s right, you the customer!
  1. It established closing times for tap rooms of 9 PM during the week and 10 PM on weekends, down from local closing times ranging from midnight to 2 AM.
  1. It limited tap room sales to beer brewed on-site only. This repeals a long-standing practice in which brewery tap rooms supplement their own products with contract beer brewed for them by other breweries.  Such contract beer sales are major sources of revenue for some craft brewers and make tap rooms more attractive to customers.

Brewers characterized the combination of changes as “one step forward and two steps back” and predicted layoffs and business losses.  Why would the House pass such a bill?

One of the biggest opponents of liberalizing rules on craft breweries is the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents restaurants and small alcohol retailers.  The group is particularly influential in Annapolis as its PAC has contributed over $180,000 to state politicians since 2005.  The association sees craft brewers as competition for its members.  From a zero-sum perspective, every pint purchased in a brewery tap room is a pint not purchased in a restaurant or package store.  But that view doesn’t recognize the synergies between these types of establishments as well as their differences.  Diageo’s brewery has the potential to be a major tourist facility, bolstering the entire local economy.  And if a consumer purchases a new product at the Diageo site and likes it, he or she will be motivated to buy that same product at restaurants and stores.  That means more business for everyone.

Some brewers would prefer that HB 1283 simply die in the Senate because of the problems it would cause, but it’s not so simple.  If the bill dies, the state’s current on-site sales limit of 500 barrels would stay in place.  That could cause Diageo to cancel its project, costing Baltimore County a $50 million tourist attraction that other states would kill to get.  Think of the impact that would have on the industry’s perception of Maryland.  If we lose Diageo, what other major brewer would ever relocate here?

Maryland has a number of anti-competitive laws on alcohol, including the much-loathed prohibitions on sales in most grocery stores and Montgomery County’s dysfunctional liquor monopoly.  The last thing we need is even more of these laws, especially if it causes us to lose a major employer and gives us a national black eye.  HB 1283 must be fixed.  Cheers to the State Senate if they can get it done.

MoCo’s Stunted Restaurant Industry

The following is a guest post by Adam Pagnucco:

One of the dimensions to the current debate about Montgomery County’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC) that has not been empirically explored is its impact on the county’s restaurant industry.  Restaurant owners have many complaints about DLC and some have said that entrepreneurs will not open new establishments here because of it.  However, several urban districts in the county have lots of restaurants that seem to be doing just fine.  So what’s going on?

Let’s investigate.

One of the many programs run by the U.S. Census Bureau is the Economic Census, a very detailed look at industries by geography that is updated every five years.  Among the statistics collected by the Economic Census are the number of establishments, the sales of those establishments, and the number of employees.  Below are the combined totals of two industry segments – drinking places (industry code 7224) and full-service restaurants (industry code 722511) – for 22 jurisdictions in the Washington-Baltimore region in 2012.  This data does not include limited service restaurants (like fast food places) that often do not sell alcohol.  Data on drinking places for Fauquier and Stafford Counties and the Cities of Fairfax, Falls Church and Fredericksburg is not available because it does not meet the reporting thresholds established by Census.

Restaurant Stats
MoCo is a significant player in the region’s restaurant industry.  It has 11% of the region’s bars and restaurants, 10% of sales and 10% of employees.  But it also has 13% of the region’s population.  MoCo matters because of its sheer size.  What happens when the restaurant industry’s statistics are presented on a per capita basis?  Using Census population data for the five-year period of 2009-2013, here’s what that looks like.

Restaurant Stats per Capita
In terms of establishments per thousand residents, MoCo (at 0.65) is not terribly different from the regional average (0.73).  MoCo’s figure is also close to the two jurisdictions which most resemble it in education and income levels, Fairfax (0.66) and Howard (0.61).  But on the next two measures, MoCo falls short.  MoCo’s restaurant sales per resident ($789) are 20% below the regional average ($989).  They are also below Fairfax ($900), Howard ($930) and Loudoun ($826).  MoCo’s restaurant employment is just as bad.  MoCo’s figure (14.2 restaurant employees per thousand residents) is 23% below the regional average (18.4) and lags most other places in the region, large and small.

Why could this be happening?  It’s not because of low income levels – MoCo does just fine on that measure as do many jurisdictions in the region.  It’s not because of comparative tax burden.  The District of Columbia’s Chief Financial Officer finds that MoCo’s tax burden is not out of line with its neighbors.  Do MoCo residents simply not like going out to eat?  Are we a county of shut-ins?

Frank Shull, the Chief Operating Officer of RW Restaurant Group, which owns several county restaurants, explained why the industry is lagging when he appeared before the County Council last spring.  According to Bethesda Magazine:

A partner in the Robert Wiedmaier Restaurant Group testified Friday that Montgomery County’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC) is “an evil empire to most people in the business.”

In testimony before the County Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Liquor Control, Frank Shull said poor selection, bad service and high prices keep Washington, D.C., restaurateurs from opening restaurants in the county.

“A majority of good operators in D.C. will not come into the county,” Shull said. “We have this discussion all the time. Restaurants don’t want to because they don’t want to deal with the DLC.”

Jackie Greenbaum, owner of Jackie’s Restaurant and the Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring, detailed the challenges of dealing with DLC when she signed our petition to End the Monopoly:

I own 2 restaurants in Montgomery County, both well known for the breadth of their beer, wine and liquor lists. The difficulty in creating and maintaining these lists because of the county controlled system is extraordinary. It adds hours of unnecessary labor to my payroll costs, diminishes the quality of my beverage programs through the inconsistency of stock, unavailability of products and errors in delivery, and drives up the cost of the products we sell–which must either be absorbed by us (therefore diminishing our profits) or passed on to the consumer resulting in higher menu prices. This system causes all but the most intrepid restaurant owners to dumb down their offerings because it’s far far easier and ensures Montgomery County will never compete with DC in terms of the quality and creativity of its restaurants.

What would happen if MoCo’s restaurant industry were average in size relative to its population?  In other words, how big would the industry be if it had 0.73 establishments per thousand residents, $989 in sales per resident and 18.4 employees per thousand residents, which are the averages for the Washington-Baltimore region?  Extrapolating from the data above, the county would have 82 more restaurants, $198 million more in sales and 4,184 more employees.  All of this would create more tax revenue for both the county and the state.

How do we get there?  Let’s be honest and acknowledge that there could be many factors governing the size of the county’s restaurant industry and DLC is just one of them.  But in the opinion of the folks who actually run restaurants, DLC is an important impediment to their doing business.  The County Council has proposed reform, but in the opinion of the two largest alcohol distributors in the state, it won’t work and they won’t participate.

Restaurants are not just businesses.  They are critical cultural assets.  People decide where to live in part because of the abundance and quality of food options.  This industry is a large part of our quality of life.  By unleashing its spirit of entrepreneurship, we enrich all of society.  So how do we do that?

Here’s one way.  End the Monopoly.

Why the Council’s Liquor Reform Won’t Work

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Adam Pagnucco:

Rising to the defense of the county’s liquor monopoly, the County Council has put forward a proposal for reform.  They claim it will cure most of the problems at the Department of Liquor Control (DLC) while causing none of the budgetary consequences of allowing full private sector competition with the department.  Are they right?

Let’s examine their recommendation in detail.

The council’s proposal focuses on “special orders,” which are requests by customers for products not in DLC’s regular stock.  The DLC’s performance in delivering these products is a huge source of complaints for restaurants and retailers, who claim that DLC regularly shorts orders, misses orders, delivers the wrong products and charges mark-ups that are significantly higher than in the District of Columbia.  The following story is a typical description of DLC’s operations in this area.

Mike Hill, general manager of Adega Wine Cellars & Café in Silver Spring, said they have problems getting specialty wines and craft beer.

“If we like a beer or wine and we want to bring that into our store, the turnaround time can be eight days if we’re lucky or two to three months to not at all in some cases,” Hill said.

He said delivery times vary from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. He explained that sometimes he receives orders that should have gone to other restaurants or stores. Other times his business receives sealed boxes that are labeled as one type of wine, but turn out to be another type when they open it.

“About 75 percent of my wall is bare because of items we’re unable to get,” Hill said.

The council is right to be concerned about this.  Their proposal would allow retailers and restaurants to purchase specialty wines and beer directly from private distributors.  That sounds great on the surface, but the devil is in the details.  Let’s have a look at the major features of what the council has in mind.

  1. DLC remains in control.

DLC has sole authority to determine what beverages are regular stock or special order, and the council’s proposed legislation does nothing to change that.  DLC would also have sole authority to levy and administer a fee on any transactions between private customers and private distributors, an issue explored further below.  Because DLC continues to preside over, control and impose charges on any purchases under the council’s proposal, that guarantees that its many inefficiencies will continue to plague the entire system.

  1. The economics don’t work.

The council would have private distributors make small deliveries of specialty products while retaining most of the volume for direct delivery by DLC.  That’s a problem.  Distribution is a capital-intensive industry.  Assets like warehouses and trucks are expensive to maintain.  To make money, distributors need to move lots of volume through their warehouses and send out lots of full trucks.  If they can’t do that, many won’t be able to profit under the council’s proposal and they could simply stay out.  Since distributors strike exclusive arrangements with manufacturers, this factor alone could exclude many beverages from the council’s proposed new system, thereby limiting its scope and defeating its purpose.

The two largest distributors in Maryland, Reliable Churchill and Republic National, made this argument in a July 2015 letter to the county council.  They wrote:

We suggest that some wholesalers, including us, will not be able to deliver special orders for economic reasons.  At present, private wholesalers deliver only to the Department of Liquor Control (the “Department”) warehouse so they have no regular delivery routes in the County.  To fulfill a special order, the private wholesaler would have to make a special trip to the licensee.  By their nature, special orders are for small quantities.  The profit on such a small transaction would not cover our delivery costs incurred by sending a truck for a special delivery.  In other words, there is no financial incentive to make the special delivery and, in fact, a disincentive.

We do not want the [council’s] resolution to raise expectations unnecessarily, so we are writing again.  As you know, private wholesalers are not required to fill all orders.  Also a winery and distillery can use only one private distributor in Maryland.  A distributor can refuse to fill an order if it is not economically feasible.  Common sense dictates that a private wholesaler would not fill orders costing them money because they are not in business to lose money.  It is almost certain that Republic National and Reliable cannot afford to make a special delivery to a licensee.

Wholesalers Letter to Council 1 Wholesalers Letter to Council 2

  1. The do-nothing fee.

The most controversial aspect of the council’s proposal is that DLC would be able to charge a fee on any special order transactions between private customers and private distributors even though it does nothing to facilitate them.  According to the council’s legislation, the fee would be “set at a level sufficient to replace the Department of Liquor Control for Montgomery County’s estimated revenue lost by allowing private licensed Maryland wholesalers to sell and distribute beer and light wine products…”  So DLC would be made whole.  It would be the sole determiner of exactly how high of a fee would be required to make it whole.  And since DLC is hugely inefficient in the special order segment – something even the council admits – the fee would reflect DLC’s bloated service costs rather than any cost savings obtained by going private.  And who would ultimately wind up paying this fee?  That’s right, the consumer.

Here’s what the state’s two largest distributors wrote about the do-nothing fee (which they characterize as a tax) in the letter shown above.

We also suggest that the local tax you intend to impose on special orders is counter-productive.  It makes a bad economic situation worse.  First, increasing the cost of products will encourage people to shop outside the County, thereby creating a hit for County business.  The County should lower prices to keep business in the county.  Already, tens of millions of dollars are spent outside the county on alcoholic beverages due to the comparatively higher costs.  Second, the tax makes delivery of a special order even more costly, discouraging wholesalers from delivering special orders.  Wholesalers cannot charge more in Montgomery County to recoup a local charge.  Third, state law precludes local taxation of alcoholic beverages, thereby suggesting that the local charge is illegal and cannot be implemented.  Fourth, we expect significant opposition to this proposal of a local charge based on its statewide implications.  Last, in some ways, the County should pay wholesalers to deliver special orders because they are solving a County problem at their expense.  We know that will never happen.

What if the do-nothing fee is removed?  Well, there’s a catch: the county issues bonds backed by liquor profits.  The council and the County Executive use this as a basis for opposing full private competition but it’s also relevant to the council’s proposal.  The County Executive believes that the do-nothing fee is required to protect those bonds in the case that any liquor distribution is done privately.  In the memo below, the Executive writes to the Council President:

I have been advised by the County’s Bond Counsel that edits were required to earlier drafts of the [liquor control] legislation to avoid a downgrade to the over $100 million in outstanding Department of Liquor Control (DLC) Revenue bonds as well as prevent litigation from existing bondholders due to a material deterioration in the security of the bonds.  According to Bond Counsel, at the time the bonds were sold bondholders had the security of a near monopoly created by State law.  If this legislation is approved that near monopoly will no longer exist under State law; so the security of the bonds will have changed.  Prior drafts of the legislation did not limit the reduction in DLC revenues pledged for the payment of the bonds and did not mandate the imposition of the surcharge [on private transactions].

The best option for reducing the possibility of a downgrade or a bondholder action is to require that the surcharge collected from the wholesalers is equal to lost revenues.  Therefore we have inserted provisions making the surcharge mandatory and “set at a level sufficient to replace… the estimated revenue lost.”  This provision should remain even after the bonds have been paid to protect County services supported by the DLC earnings transfer.

Leggett DLC 1 Leggett DLC 2

And so if the council’s recommendation is adopted with a do-nothing fee, it will – surprise! – do nothing because distributors won’t participate.  And if it is adopted without one, it would cause many of the same budgetary issues as an End the Monopoly approach with few of the offsetting benefits.

  1. A Get Out of Jail Free Card for DLC.

Remember the board game Monopoly?  One of its most famous playing cards allows a player to Get Out of Jail Free.  That’s exactly what the council’s proposal does for DLC.

Get out of jail free-1

The proposals by Comptroller Peter Franchot and Delegate Bill Frick would expose DLC to full private sector competition – the only force that will compel DLC to improve.  But the council’s system would keep DLC in the driver’s seat.  DLC would decide which beverages to sell, which ones to delegate to the private sector and exactly how much money it will charge to be “compensated.”  It will remain free to run its warehouse with sticky notes and to suffer shortages of as many as 154 cases a day.  Its broken ordering system will now include extra accounting and paperwork to administer the do-nothing fee.  And if anyone speaks up in the future in favor of real change, the DLC’s bureaucracy will say, “Wait a minute.  A new procedure has just been put in place.  We need time to implement it.  And once we do, we promise things will improve.”  And a year will pass.  And five years.  And then a decade.  And businesses will continue to struggle while consumers simply flee to the District of Columbia, which they do now.

The council’s proposal is designed to force citizens – consumers and businesses alike – to subjugate their interests to the liquor monopoly.  Good government demands the opposite: the county should serve the interests of the citizens.  And there’s only one way to do that.

End the Monopoly.

Residents Speak Out Against the Liquor Monopoly

Del. Bill Frick Proposes to Allow Voters to Decide

The movement to end the Montgomery County liquor monopoly is gaining momentum. Six legislators plan to introduce legislation to allow voters to decide the question. Comptroller Franchot penned an opinion piece last week arguing for its end. But I suspect that it’s the political potency of the issue with voters that will give it continued forward momentum.

The following is by Adam Pagnucco:

As of this writing, over 900 people have signed the petition asking Montgomery County’s State Senators and Delegates to end the county’s archaic liquor monopoly. Here are a few comments from petition signers that truly say it all.

*****

First of all, I appreciate Roger Berliner’s and the other County leaders’ embrace of this cause. Montgomery County, Maryland’s liquor laws are an embarrassing and harmful anachronism. County sales of alcohol do not serve any public purpose but they do perpetuate an expensive and useless bureaucracy. The County should not be a seller of alcohol but rather should serve as a responsible regulator of private restaurants and stores selling alcohol.

Retaining the current system discourages the entry of businesses into the County and results in a conflict of interest for the County as both a regulator and a vendor selling to and competing with private businesses. Getting the County out of the liquor business would allow private enterprise to offer consumers more choices and more reasonable prices. At the same time, it would allow the County to focus on its regulatory role, while gaining additional tax revenue from businesses to lower individual taxes.

I have lived in this County for more than sixty years. This useless charade cannot be ended too soon.
Kenneth Markison, Chevy Chase, MD

I own 2 restaurants in Montgomery County, both well known for the breadth of their beer, wine and liquor lists. The difficulty in creating and maintaining these lists because of the county controlled system is extraordinary. It adds hours of unnecessary labor to my payroll costs, diminishes the quality of my beverage programs through the inconsistency of stock, unavailability of products and errors in delivery, and drives up the cost of the products we sell – which must either be absorbed by us (therefore diminishing our profits) or passed on to the consumer resulting in higher menu prices. This system causes all but the most intrepid restaurant owners to dumb down their offerings because it’s far far easier and ensures Montgomery County will never compete with DC in terms of the quality and creativity of its restaurants.
Jackie Greenbaum, Washington, DC

[Editor’s note: Ms. Greenbaum is an owner of Jackie’s Restaurant and the legendary Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring. She has written about the Monopoly before.]

I’m signing because this is 2015, not 1925.
Debra Van Alstyne, Potomac, MD

Ridiculous that this is still in place. Way past time to do away with it.
Deborah Grossman, Takoma Park, MD

I’m signing because I’m sick of being forced to drive out of MoCo to get the wines I want. It causes MoCo restaurants time, money, and frustration. It discourages new restaurants from considering moving to MoCo. The current system is cumbersome, useless, embarrassing, archaic, and typically paternalistic. I don’t need this County to make my buying decisions for me, thank you.
Lezlie Crosswhite, North Potomac, MD

I’m tired of having to go to DC or VA to have a wide choice of wines plus the prices are so much better.
Sandra Satterfield, Rockville, MD

I am an economist, retired from the FTC after over 30 years. I worked exclusively on anti-trust cases. Monopolies hurt consumers.
Russ Parker, Bethesda, MD

According to the Maryland Declaration of Rights “monopolies are odious”. If monopolies are so odious then why does Montgomery County have a monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages in Montgomery County?
Justin McInerny, Chevy Chase, MD

… because the monopoly is outdated, stifling, and ridiculous. And annoying.
Diana Conway, Potomac, MD

It has been proven to be a flawed system that restricts the store owner’s ability to maximize sales and be self-reliant on their success. The internal inventory controls have been called into question as of late as well. Time to open it up to the free market!
John Hodges, Rockville, MD

I am tired of County stores with poor quality and customer service. I have to shop with a cart that has a pole on it so I can be tracked through the store, then I have to stand behind a piece of blue tape on the floor to be helped by someone who doesn’t want to be there. The selection is poor and I find myself shopping elsewhere. It’s time to get rid of soviet era liquor stores.
Richard Neimand, Silver Spring, MD

We’re tired of driving to Total Wine in Laurel and Calvert-Woodley in D.C. to find good selections of beer and wine at reasonable prices. We want to spend our money here, but not at the premium we have to pay because of this ridiculous set up. Also, we want to see more restaurants locate here and they need access to good selections of fine wines, craft liquors, etc.
Mike Diegel, Silver Spring, MD

This system no longer (if it ever did) makes sense.
Michael Webb, Germantown, MD

It is time for the free market to work its magic and for the county to cure its addiction to alcohol (revenues). A remarkably inefficient, and at times corrupt, system should not be tolerated by consumers and businesses directly affected by its protection. Let voters decide what happens.
Allen Perper, Silver Spring, MD

I spend money out of county in an effort to avoid the ridiculous monopoly in Montgomery County. It is insulting to my intelligence.
Stephen Sugg, Rockville, MD

Business is for the private sector, governing is for the government.|
Yovav Sever, Rockville, MD

I buy much of my alcohol outside MoCo. I want a wider selection and to not have to drive!
Laurie Wilner, Potomac, MD

The county should NOT be selling alcohol at all! I always thought that was stupid. The county has anti-drink programs and yet sells the stuff…let’s teach our kids hypocrisy, shall we?
Pat Burton, Gaithersburg, MD

I’m signing because I do purchase all of my beer and wine in Washington, D.C.
Michael Reust, Takoma Park, MD

I live in MoCo and have to go to Frederick County (or Virginia) to get a couple of things that the county won’t allow to be sold. The current system is a total joke.
Victoria Cross, Gaithersburg, MD

I’m signing because I resent the county’s imposing a monopoly on its citizens. We’re grownups. Let us decide who to buy our alcohol from, and what to buy. I love Mo Co except this liquor business is an embarrassment.
David Austin, Bethesda, MD

I don’t believe the county should have a monopoly on the liquor we buy or the choices restaurants have in what they provide customers. Currently, and for MANY years, I’ve purchased all my liquor in DC. Too bad for Maryland and time to smarten up.
Anne Claysmith, Bethesda, MD

I hate having to drive to neighboring counties to find liquor stores with a decent variety to choose from.
Mark Eakin, Silver Spring, MD

I worked at a bar in Silver Spring for 4 years, and during that time we were frequently unable to keep regular beers, liquors, and supplies we relied on in stock due to the County’s apathy towards customer interests
Jennifer Burrell, Laurel, MD

The county should not be allowed to continue its monopoly on alcohol sales to our businesses. I fully support allowing private sellers to compete with DLC in Montgomery County and putting this issue to a referendum so that it is clear how many county citizens desire a private competition approach.
Michael Fetchko, Bethesda, MD

What he said.
Ralph Bennett, Silver Spring, MD

Political Opening in Alcohol

Politicians often have trouble finding major issues that they can use successfully in campaigns. The Montgomery County Liquor Monopoly provides a rare opportunity for politicians who wish to advance or outsiders who want to crash the incumbent party.

Why It is a Good Campaign Issue

Good campaign issues have several key attributes. First, they have to divide you from your opponent. Voters cannot  differentiate between candidates when they agree. Put another way, “I’m even more pro-choice” is usually not going to unseat an incumbent. Montgomery County’s liquor monopoly is an easy issue for candidates to differentiate themselves.

Second, the subject has to be easy to communicate. If an issue requires jargon, like Maintenance of Effort, to explain it, it is not going to work. Clear and concise are critical. Opposition to the monopoly is the rare issue that works well on a postcard.

Finally, voters have to care about the issue and favor the candidate’s position. Unlike with many issues, many voters have direct experience of the monopoly and have formed opinions about it. Put simply, they don’t like it and would like to see it go away. Recently, a poll confirmed the well-known widely shared antipathy for it.

Opportunity in Opposing the DLC Monopoly

The existing Department of Liquor Control monopoly over the distribution of all alcohol and the sale of hard liquor provides a fat, juicy target. Through personal experience, many County voters know that the DLC assures higher prices in unattractive stores.

Comptroller Peter Franchot has already raised the issue’s profile.
The natural coalition favoring reform is powerful. Consumers receive no benefit from the monopoly, as it raises prices and forces them to travel farther to find greater selections at lower prices. They just don’t get why the County needs to be in this business. In short, they’ll only benefit if perestroika arrives in MoCo.

Business also hates the monopoly because it makes it much harder for the critical restaurant sector to thrive. More broadly, it is a barrier to expanding business around the County’s nightlife. Getting rid of the monopoly is a leading priority for the Chamber of Commerce. Fighting the monopoly looks like an excellent way to open doors to an untapped source of campaign donations.

Moreover, the defenders of the monopoly make excellent foils. Its main supporter is MCGEO–the union that represents the current DLC stores. While they claim to protect union jobs, the industry is highly unionized, so their real fear is that the workers would be represented by other unions.

Moreover, MCGEO acts like a union out of Republican central casting, attempting to bully its opponents into submission. Union President Gino Renne is not just a character but a caricature of the well-paid union boss. MCGEO slings mud in a way that attracts bad publicity rather than support.

Moreover, MCGEO is incredibly ineffective. It tried to take down numerous incumbents in the last election and failed all around. Unlike the Teachers (MCEA), MCEGO just doesn’t carry much weight with voters or show an ability to accomplish much on behalf of its candidates. Councilmember Roger Berliner wiped the floor against MCGEO’s well-funded candidate in 2014.

Conclusion and Petition

This is a rare bipartisan opportunity. Opposition to the monopoly is shared among Democrats and Republicans. It’s great issue for either primary or general challengers to wield against local or state incumbents who don’t join those who have gotten out in front on this issue.

Six members of the General Assembly–Del. Kathleen Dumais, Sen. Brian Feldman, Del. Bill Frick, Sen. Nancy King, Del. Aruna Miller, and Del. Kirill Reznik–are sponsoring a bill so that Montgomery voters can decide the issue in a referendum.

You can sign the petition, launched yesterday, to support their efforts.

MoCo Doesn’t Need Its Liquor Money

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Adam Pagnucco:

Even though MoCo consumers are fleeing the county’s archaic liquor monopoly, county officials are going all out to save it. Their arguments boil down to essentially one point: we need the money, and terrible things will happen unless we get it. The County Executive’s spokesman has said that a reduction in liquor monopoly money “means a reduction of county services or an increase in taxes.” And Council Member Hans Riemer has said that a loss of liquor money would mean “jeopardizing our ability to hire teachers or police officers.”

Are they right? Let’s look at the data.

First, let’s consider the nature of the county’s budget. It is not a static, zero-sum thing. Rather, it is a dynamic and growing thing that increases almost every year. The county deliberately sets property tax rates to increase collections at the rate of inflation (its charter limit) regularly. Income and energy tax collections rise with private-sector growth. State aid, mostly going towards public schools, has been rising. All of these factors have contributed to a steadily growing county budget.

The chart below shows a comparison of total county revenues, net income from the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC), and the rate of inflation in the Washington-Baltimore metro area from Fiscal Year 2004 through Fiscal Year 2016.

MoCo Revenue vs Inflation

A few things stand out. First, total revenues grew in ten of these twelve years, with small declines occurring in 2010 and 2015. (Data for the latter year is still an estimate). Second, total revenue has been growing at an average rate (4.2% a year) that is almost double the rate of local price inflation (2.4%). Third, net income from the liquor monopoly is a tiny fraction of the county’s budget and has been largely stagnant. In 2004, liquor money was 0.74% of the county’s budget; in 2016, it is projected to be 0.47%. Part of this is because the county has begun issuing bonds against liquor profits and thus must pay debt service. But another part is that the monopoly is poorly managed. Over this period, the county saw an average annual revenue gain of $25 million from liquor and $140 million from other sources.

That means county revenues would still go up even without liquor monopoly money. There would be no need for cuts.

Comptroller Peter Franchot has proposed allowing the private sector to compete with the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC). What would happen to county revenues if that were to occur? That depends on how retailers, restaurants and consumers react. Let’s consider what would happen if DLC were well-managed, price competitive and truly focused on customers. Under this scenario, it might lose just 25% of its net income. Here’s how county revenues would have performed since 2004 if that were the case.

DLC loses 25 percent

In the real world, the county’s total revenues grew by an average 4.2% a year. If DLC had lost 25% of its net income, the county’s total revenues would have grown by an average 4.1%. There would be almost no difference to the county’s bottom line.

Now let’s suppose that DLC loses 50% of its net income. Here’s how that scenario would have played out.

DLC loses 50 percent

The county’s average annual total revenue growth changes from 4.2% to 3.9%. Again, not much difference.

Finally, let’s look at what would have happened had DLC net income disappeared entirely.

DLC loses 100 percent

The county’s annual total revenue growth changes from 4.2% to 3.7%. The latter number is still 55% greater than the average rate of price inflation in the Washington-Baltimore area (2.4%). Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that this scenario would only occur if DLC were so awful that all of its customers fled. If that’s the case, why should DLC be protected by a monopoly at all? And the data above completely omits any extra revenue the county would earn from a revitalized private sector free of the monopoly that it calls “an Evil Empire.” Extra money from property taxes and income taxes could close some of this gap.

This discussion is not exclusively hypothetical. In July, the County Council passed a mid-year savings plan that trimmed $54 million from the budget it had passed only two months before. That amount is more than twice as much as the county earns from its liquor monopoly. Public education and public safety were not jeopardized. That’s because the overall budget provided for a $209 million increase from the prior year’s estimated revenue. County government continues to grow and no apocalypse has occurred.

Finally, consider this. There are more than three thousand counties in the United States. Very few of them have MoCo’s resources. All of them except us have figured out how to pay for their priorities and balance their budgets without needing a liquor monopoly. Are MoCo’s elected officials the only county leaders in the entire United States who can’t figure out how to live without one? I think not; I have seen them deal with much more serious budget problems effectively.

The county government doesn’t need its liquor money. So let’s End the Monopoly.

MoCo Consumers Flee from the Department of Liquor Control

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Adam Pagnucco:

Last week, Montgomery County Council Member Hans Riemer wrote a guest blog on the reasons why county residents opposed the county’s alcohol system in a recent poll by Comptroller Peter Franchot. Council Member Riemer wrote:

While the poll does show the general dissatisfaction with the alcohol regime our residents endure, it unfortunately does not specify which parts of the regime are the culprit, state or local. In my many conversations with residents, I find that the primary complaint relates to the state of Maryland’s unfortunate ban on the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores.

This is important because if the council’s plan is enacted, the county liquor stores survive and actually increase in number in order to increase consumer options and pay for reform. We need them. Considering that, I would ask how important is it to residents to replace county liquor stores with private ones? While I am sure that there is some support for that, it is not clear to me that it is a very high priority for the community. I don’t hear a lot of complaints that we have county stores. Mostly just that there aren’t enough of them. What about you?

In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that MoCo consumers are fleeing the county’s alcohol monopoly and it has nothing to do with the availability of alcohol in grocery stores. Consider the following.

  1. Sales of alcohol are low in MoCo.

Data from Gallup and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services link alcohol consumption to income and education. In other words, as income and education levels rise, alcohol consumption tends to rise too. Since MoCo is one of Maryland’s highest-income and best-educated jurisdictions, the county should be one of its leaders in alcohol consumption. However, that is not reflected in per capita sales data collected by the Comptroller’s office. In terms of per capita sales deliveries to retail licensees inside each county, MoCo ranks 13th of 24 jurisdictions in wine, tied for 23rd in spirits and dead last (by far) in beer. Among the counties out-ranking MoCo in per capita wine sales are Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Garrett, Harford and Kent, all mostly rural jurisdictions with far less disposable income than MoCo. Does anyone believe that MoCo residents drink less wine than people in Western Maryland? Grocery stores cannot explain this discrepancy because the huge majority of counties in Maryland have restrictions on grocery store sales of alcohol. As Comptroller Peter Franchot has said, MoCo residents simply cross the border to buy liquor.

  1. MoCo residents flee the county to go to Total Wine.

Total Wine, which is headquartered in MoCo and owned by MoCo residents, is one of the nation’s largest alcohol retailers and is famous for its big stores, huge selection and low prices. The company refuses to open a store in MoCo because the county’s alcohol monopoly “doesn’t favor the free market.” But Total Wine has plenty of MoCo residents among its customers. The company estimates that over 20% of its McLean store sales and nearly 25% of its Laurel store sales are accounted for by MoCo customers. David Lublin’s price comparison explains why: Total Wine blows away county liquor stores on both price and selection. Other jurisdictions gain at our expense.

  1. The Department of Liquor Control’s own consultant found major problems in its operations.

A consultant hired by the Department of Liquor Control (DLC) found a host of problems in county liquor stores. Here are three from the consultant’s 2014 report.

Lack of administrative flexibility – Unlike most County functions, DLC operates in a wholesale/retail sales environment. In many instances, it lacks the flexibility and ability to respond quickly, which is necessary for it to best serve its customers and do so profitably. This lack of control over key decisions also manifests itself in other identified weaknesses.

Staffing – The DLC often lacks the ability to apply normal staffing techniques found in private retail. For example, there are generally two peak seasons for liquor retail operations: the Winter Holiday season and Summer Fourth of July season. Most DLC stores would, for comparison purposes, be similar to an independent liquor retail store (as opposed to a ‘Big Box’ chain store or grocery store). In these establishments, it would be likely that rather than adding permanent full-time staff to handle these peak seasons, the business would hire temporary staff. However, because of County collective bargaining agreements, they generally do not have this flexibility, which either leads to staffing shortages (which can negatively impact sales) or a working environment for existing staff that hampers morale and productivity.

Older stores/locations/rental contracts – In several instances, stores are in obvious need of basic repairs or refurbishment – including scarred floors and counters, old racks, lighting and entrances. Given that the DLC leases all of its locations, in many instances it has little leverage to demand improvements prior to the end of the lease.

Lack of flexibility, staff shortages and sub-standard stores. Is this what MoCo consumers deserve?

  1. D.C. liquor stores camp out at our border.

The graphic below shows seven liquor stores in D.C. within four blocks of the MoCo border. If MoCo consumers were happy with the county’s alcohol system, why would this be happening?

DC liquor stores

  1. The only county liquor store with true competition is losing money and will close.

Most county liquor stores are insulated from competition because they are the only suppliers of spirits in their vicinity. The one exception is the store in Friendship Heights, which is adjacent to the D.C. border. Since the surrounding area is affluent and wealthy people often buy up-scale beverages, one would expect this store to be a strong money maker. But the store lost $278,431 in 2013 – the only county liquor store that lost money – and will soon close. It’s not a coincidence that D.C.’s Paul’s Wine and Spirits is just three blocks away. The county’s decision to close this store is an admission that its stores can’t compete with the private sector. And if that’s the case, why should they be protected by a state-ordered monopoly?

MoCo’s alcohol monopoly and its accompanying fleet of county liquor stores are unacceptable to county consumers and that was clear long before this blog released the Comptroller’s poll results on the subject. So what is the county doing about that? Why, it’s opening more county liquor stores. That’s like promising Kirk Cousins more playing time with every interception he throws.

Look folks. Our system’s premise is that MoCo residents are children, inferior to our fellows in the rest of the region, and that we must be controlled by the heavy hand of government for our own good. Well, guess what? We’re not children and we know what we want: the same freedom of choice that everyone else in the region has. We don’t want excuses. We don’t want tweaks. We don’t want vague promises of improvement.

We want to End the Monopoly.

Hans Riemer Responds on Opposition to the County Alcohol Monopoly

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large), author of the proposed changes to the County liquor laws. (You can read a counterpoint in a previous post by Adam Pagnucco.)

I was very interested to see the results from the survey question commissioned by Comptroller Franchot. I expected to see that residents of Montgomery County are deeply dissatisfied with the alcohol regulations they endure under the county and state. That is why I led the effort to raise these issues and end the DLC’s wholesale monopoly as chair of the Council Ad Hoc Committee on Liquor Control.

I strongly believe our county alcohol regime holds back the vibrancy of our restaurant and nightlife economy and negatively impacts the choices residents get in stores. Our state regime, which denies the convenience of shopping for beer and wine at grocery stores or other large chain retailers, is also badly out of touch with our residents.

While the poll does show the general dissatisfaction with the alcohol regime our residents endure, it unfortunately does not specify which parts of the regime are the culprit, state or local. In my many conversations with residents, I find that the primary complaint relates to the state of Maryland’s unfortunate ban on the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores.

This is important because of the council’s plan is enacted, the county liquor stores survive and actually increase in number in order to increase consumer options and pay for reform. We need them. Considering that, I would ask how important is it to residents to replace county liquor stores with private ones? While I am sure that there is some support for that, it is not clear to me that it is a very high priority for the community. I don’t hear a lot of complaints that we have county stores. Mostly just that there aren’t enough of them. What about you?

Most importantly we don’t know from this poll how much support would exist for getting rid of county stores if it means having less funds available for schools, police, parks, and the like. Because the warehouse would have to move to the capital budget if the DLC were eliminated, the plan would also affect school construction and other capital needs.

After six months of council work sessions with stakeholders, and detailed survey work with stores and restaurants, the Council proposal focuses on something we know factually to be true.  We can come up with an efficient and effective distribution regime by allowing the private sector to deliver craft beer and fine wine. This ends the monopoly by giving the private sector 25,000 boutique brands to distribute, while the county retains only the 4,500 big brands.

The statewide policies of course can only be addressed at that level.

In conclusion, this one poll question does not tell us all very much about the complicated decisions that together our county and state must make. So we will need to use our best judgment.

My belief is that if the county can accomplish what it has proposed and if the state can reform the statewide policies that need to be addressed, the combination — a huge change from the status quo — will bring our residents what they want and deserve.

You can read more about our proposal here, which was unanimously supported by my Council colleagues, and the County Executive, as well as restaurants, stores and the county employee union. It will be before our county delegation for their consideration this coming session.

Poll: MoCo Voters Oppose County Alcohol Monopoly

Today, I am pleased to present a guest blog by Adam Pagnucco:

A poll commissioned by Comptroller Peter Franchot has found massive opposition to Montgomery County’s liquor monopoly.

Among those polled, 69% support eliminating the County monopoly with slightly  higher levels of support for repeal–74%–among people who describe themselves as definite voters. The results indicate that residents across party, gender, age, education and ideological lines favor getting rid of the laws granting the county control over alcohol sales.

The poll question was asked in a broader statewide poll on a number of issues.  The statewide poll, conducted by Normington, Petts & Associates in September 2015, had roughly 500 respondents with 84 in Montgomery.

The MoCo residents were asked whether they favor or oppose a “proposal to get rid of the laws making Montgomery County an alcohol controlled county.”  Following are the responses from each segment of the poll with a sample size of at least 20 respondents.

(Editor’s Note: Though 84 is a small sample size with an inevitably large margin of error of 10.9%, the difference between the share of favor and oppose getting rid of the monopoly is so large that it is statistically significant despite the small sample.)

Do you favor or oppose a proposal to get rid of the laws making Montgomery County an alcohol controlled county?

Full Sample (N=84)
Strongly favor                       48%
Somewhat favor                  21
Somewhat oppose               6
Strongly oppose                  17
Don’t know                              7

Total favor                              69
Total oppose                         24

Definite Voters (N=72)
Strongly favor                       52%
Somewhat favor                  22
Somewhat oppose               5
Strongly oppose                  14
Don’t know                              7

Total favor                              74
Total oppose                         19

Men (N=51)
Strongly favor                       55%
Somewhat favor                  18
Somewhat oppose               6
Strongly oppose                  18
Don’t know                              3

Total favor                              73
Total oppose                         24

Women (N=34)
Strongly favor                       38%
Somewhat favor                  26
Somewhat oppose               6
Strongly oppose                  16
Don’t know                            13

Total favor                              64
Total oppose                         23

Age 18-44 (N=30)
Strongly favor                       57%
Somewhat favor                  20
Somewhat oppose               0
Strongly oppose                  18
Don’t know                              4

Total favor                              78
Total oppose                         18

Age 45-59 (N=34)
Strongly favor                       49%
Somewhat favor                  20
Somewhat oppose               9
Strongly oppose                  14
Don’t know                              8

Total favor                              69
Total oppose                         23

Age 60+ (N=20)
Strongly favor                       34%
Somewhat favor                  25
Somewhat oppose             11
Strongly oppose                  23
Don’t know                              8

Total favor                              58
Total oppose                         34

Education, some college or less (N=23)
Strongly favor                       38%
Somewhat favor                  14
Somewhat oppose             12
Strongly oppose                  27
Don’t know                              9

Total favor                              52
Total oppose                         39

Education, college graduate or more (N=60)
Strongly favor                       53%
Somewhat favor                  22
Somewhat oppose               4
Strongly oppose                  14
Don’t know                              6

Total favor                              75
Total oppose                         18

Registered Democrats (N=46)
Strongly favor                       50%
Somewhat favor                  17
Somewhat oppose               9
Strongly oppose                  19
Don’t know                              5

Total favor                              67
Total oppose                         28

Registered Republicans (N=23)
Strongly favor                       42%
Somewhat favor                  25
Somewhat oppose               4
Strongly oppose                  18
Don’t know                            11

Total favor                              67
Total oppose                         22

Liberal Ideology (N=29)
Strongly favor                       52%
Somewhat favor                  14
Somewhat oppose               4
Strongly oppose                  24
Don’t know                              6

Total favor                              65
Total oppose                         29

Moderate Ideology (N=25)
Strongly favor                       60%
Somewhat favor                  17
Somewhat oppose               7
Strongly oppose                    7
Don’t know                              9

Total favor                              77
Total oppose                         14

Conservative Ideology (N=31)
Strongly favor                       36%
Somewhat favor                  31
Somewhat oppose               8
Strongly oppose                  19
Don’t know                              6

Total favor                              67
Total oppose                         27

The poll has an important caveat: its small sample size.  However, it was conducted by a respected national polling firm with decades of experience and lots of clients around the country.  Furthermore, its results are consistent: every demographic asked favored ending MoCo’s status as an alcohol control jurisdiction.  Democrats and Republicans have many disagreements, as do liberals and conservatives.  But in MoCo, they agree on one thing:

End the Monopoly.