Momentum builds toward ABC reforms, but don’t get cocky

By John Trump

This story first appeared in Carolina Journal

Talk of momentum is mostly an exercise in mysticism. Unless measured physically — as it relates to velocity and mass — momentum is figurative, nothing more than idea, a feeling.

Yet it’s an apt description of something in motion, and I can think of no better word to represent the steady progress of ideas — real legislation, even — toward fixing the busted way North Carolina stores, distributes, and sells liquor.

All involved — brewers, vintners, consumers — have reason for optimism, albeit with a healthy shot of caution.

Lawmakers this session have filed what amounts to a jumble of bills designed to ease restrictive Prohibition-era rules enacted in the first half of the 20th century. These bills, including an omnibus measure filed Tuesday in the House, would allow distillers to sell spirituous liquor directly to consumers in other states and remove limits on sales to customers visiting one of the nearly 60 craft distilleries in the state.

The bills would authorize public colleges and universities to allow the sale of alcohol at stadiums, athletic facilities, and arenas on school property. They would allow distillers to serve mixed drinks, for brewers to more freely distribute their beer, and for communities to decide whether they want liquor sold on Sundays.

But these bills, at least so far, have failed to address the rabid coyote in the corner. About 170 politically entrenched boards, which operate loosely under the auspices of the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, oversee the distribution, sale, and revenue from alcohol in cities and counties throughout the state. As we’ve written — again and again — these boards distribute some money from alcohol sales to another set of politicians in respective communities, though there’s really no clear formula for that distribution or uniform targets for the money. The funding has become a sort of entitlement, and communities used to that money are seeing it disturbed by what has become a steady political breeze.

They’re feeling threatened and are rallying in support of the status quo.

But, setting aside the idea of full privatization, implementing a centralized system — like Virginia, for example — is one plausible idea, and one that would include finding ways to equitably disperse alcohol money around the state.

The issue with the boards is ultra-sensitive politically, but lawmakers aren’t averse to making suggestions.

Senate Bill 87 — and its companion, House Bill 91 — would require the merger of ABC systems in a county with two or more ABC systems. There are lots of those. Brunswick County, for instance, has nine boards, which is a ridiculous number.

One North Carolina distiller who supports the status quo has more than once told me that no system is perfect. It’s true. All 50 states govern alcohol differently, and each has it strengths and its flaws.

This, too is true: Ye Olde N.C. Spirits Express has just plain run out of track.

Let’s keep in mind lawmakers are working with a stack of bills, and the result may be predictable yet positive. Or, it could be something else altogether.

While it’s OK to celebrate the progress lawmakers are making toward modernizing the antique N.C. ABC system, we may want to thinking about tempering that high-proof whiskey with a little water.