Opinion: Daily Journal

Arguments for Prohibition in 1917 hold no place for lawmakers today

As I listened Tuesday to a N.C. House committee discuss an alcohol bill, I thought about how America debated the 18th Amendment.

In 1917, and for years after that.

I thought about how we spoke to each other — those influenced by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. Those from worlds where alcohol was an inherent part of their culture, and the entrepreneurs whose hard work and brilliant formulas were just starting to matter.

I imagined what people were thinking when they voted to prohibit alcohol, in their states and then in their country. I wondered how lawmakers overrode a presidential veto to pass an enforcement act with claws so sharp as to leave a deep, festering gash that took years to heal.

The way North Carolina governs alcohol, particularly liquor, is broken. I’ve said this many times, as have my colleagues at the John Locke Foundation.

Such meetings with liquor as the focus, including this one of the House Alcoholic Beverage Committee, seem almost formulaic in nature. The same people make the same arguments, both for and against. At one point Tuesday, as the House members debated House Bill 91, I became disheartened, wondering aloud whether North Carolina would ever realize the potential of our craft distillers, and the potential tourism dollars they could bring, if only our laws would allow.

H.B. 91 is a product of a study by the Program Evaluation Division, which suggested merging ABC boards in counties with multiple boards. Brunswick County, for instance, has nine ABC boards. Wake and Mecklenburg counties, the state’s most populous, have one apiece.

Carol Shaw, the PED’s principal program evaluator, told lawmakers merged boards are more likely to be profitable, that operating costs are lower, and they are typically more efficient.

Language in the original bill would have the boards merge, but, through an amendment proposed by Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, the provision was removed. Rep. Jamie Boles, R-Moore, suggested capping the number of boards in the state, at 170.

The ABC boards are problematic for myriad reasons. They are politically entrenched entities that operate independently and with little state supervision. They hold immense political sway, which, say critics, can very well lead to favoritism, cronyism, and, ultimately, corruption.  

Yet many of the boards generate money for their respective communities, which, board proponents argue, can’t possibly be replaced. I would disagree, but there’s little point in debating this because — save a bold legislative move — the board system isn’t going away.

Hurley, let’s understand, opposes any move that, she deems, promotes alcohol or makes it easier for people to buy it.

Here I began thinking about the arguments for Prohibition.

Amendments from Boles to allow consumers to special order a single bottle from an ABC store — now you have to order by the case — and to make it easier for businesses to transport liquor sans the ABC, were successful. H.B. 91 now heads to the House Finance Committee, so there’s reason for optimism, albeit ever so cautious.

Hurley also proposed Tuesday an amendment that would remove from the bill tastings at liquor stores and the possibility of Sunday sales, reminding another lawmaker of the old “blue laws.” She says people have six days to buy liquor, and that’s enough.

Thing is, it’s not for her to decide. It’s up to the market, an idea reflected in West Virginia’s decision this year to allow Sunday sales, and for Virginia to open ABC stores beginning Sunday at 10 a.m.

Both of Hurley’s proposals failed badly.

Maybe, I thought, North Carolina is truly making progress toward reforming its arcane ABC laws. Maybe we’ve moved far enough beyond the failed experiment of Prohibition that arguments for Prohibition from 1917 proposed today are no longer debated but rather summarily cast aside and forgotten.

Maybe.