As an unprecedented torrent of out-of-state money spread lies and distortions throughout Maine, it’s a wonder any of us felt like voting on Tuesday.
Regardless of the results, you may need an alcoholic beverage today, to ease the pain, and perhaps a shower to cleanse the dirt that was splashed onto each and every one of us.
If we purchased our alcohol in Maine, we paid too much. I’ve read that our next-door neighbor prices its alcohol as much as 40 percent below Maine prices. Shop (tax) free or die!
This alcohol issue is relevant today because the next Legislature, the one we just elected, will oversee a new contract for the state’s liquor wholesaler. In the contract negotiated 10 years ago, we gave away the farm, the cows and the milk.
A headline on the front page of this newspaper a couple of weeks ago said it all: “2004 State Liquor Deal a Desperate Measure.”
Jessica Hall’s account of that desperate measure is fascinating and troubling.
Bottom line: The fair market value of that 10-year contract was $378 million. We got $125 million up front and $40 million over the next 10 years. And higher prices to boot.
Joe Bruno, the House Republican leader at the time, was quoted in 2004 as saying, “They fooled the Legislature.”
Well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Let’s hope the governor and new legislators will do their jobs and make sure Maine gets a good deal this time.
The new wholesale liquor contract will go out to bid soon, with negotiations scheduled to be completed by June. Hall reported, “Legislators this time are seeking $20 million up front and the right to earn more over the life of the contract.”
What legislators really need to do is take a radical new track — and get out of the liquor business altogether. The days when it was thought to be important for the government to control the making and selling of alcohol are long gone. It’s time to get the government out of the liquor business.
Does the government control the sale of any other product this way? Of course not. Yet we continue to maintain a confusing array of liquor laws and treat this product as if it were toxic. Actually, the government doesn’t even control the sale of toxic products to this extent.
The simpler approach would be to turn these products over to the more-efficient and more-customer-friendly private industry, and simply take our cut through the sales tax — just like we do for cigarettes, for example.
Some will counter that it’s important for the government to limit the sale of alcohol to appropriate consumers (no kids, for example). To them, I again raise the comparison to cigarettes.
I am reminded of the problem encountered last year by Kennebec Pizza in Hallowell, where owner Steve Deptula was unable to sell beer in his sparkling new shop because he only had one bathroom. Thankfully, the Legislature changed that law.
And I know that alcohol is even more tightly controlled in other states. North Dakota, where I hunt pheasants each fall, is particularly ridiculous. You can’t find beer or wine in the supermarkets. It’s hide and seek every year as we look for a place to pick some up.
You can’t buy it anywhere on Sundays in the capital city of Bismark. In the small town where we hunt, the restaurant can’t sell alcohol, but we can buy a beer at the saloon and carry it across the street to enjoy with our supper in the restaurant. Absurd.
Absurd, however, I can live with. A very great fleecing, not so much.
Hall also reported they already are divvying up the anticipated windfall of new money for favorite projects and programs. This is wrong.
Fifteen percent will go to clean water programs, 20 percent to highways, 30 percent to the budget stabilization fund, and 35 percent to the general fund.
There’s a rumor Gov. Paul LePage wants to use the money to pay hospital debts. This is just how we get into trouble. All the money ought to go to the general fund where it will be available, every two years, to pay the expenses of the programs and projects the Legislature and governor deem important.
Priorities change every budget cycle. It makes no sense to tie your money up ahead of time. That makes the job of balancing the budget that much tougher.
And that’s no lie. It’s the truth.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.