Utah's Capitol Hill continues to wrestle with the state's relationship to alcoholic beverages. And so far lawmakers are losing.
Recently a legislative panel heard a consulting firm recommend ways to bring in more revenue from state-run liquor stores. Among the steps, Bob Springmeyer suggested that retail outlets be opened closer to centers of retail business -- for example, opening liquor outlets next to supermarkets.
"I don't think the liquor should be sold next to apples and pears and other food items," Springmeyer said. "It should be sold in a separate location on the property. Separate entrance and separate cashiers." A similar arrangement can be seen at stores in Wyoming.
As the old saying goes, in retail business, the three most important things are "location, location, location." A business wants to be as convenient as possible for customers. Someone who has just bought food for dinner wants to buy a bottle of wine to go with it, and probably doesn't want to go far to do so. Locating the outlets close to supermarkets likely would boost revenue. The state needs the money, and the troubled Department of Alcoholic Beverage control needs to display more successes.
The trouble with this reasoning is the reverse angle. If more liquor is being sold, the more it can circulate in society. If greater availability translates to greater volume (if it doesn't, then the state wouldn't get more money), then the question is whether greater volume automatically translates to greater problems.
An assumed "yes" is always the ground upon which liquor opponents stand, but the position is open to challenge.
It's true that some liquor stores are in less-than-prime locations. In Provo, for instance, the store isn't near the mall, or downtown, or even along University Avenue. It's stuck way down on south Freedom Boulevard.
In Orem, the store isn't near the major shopping arteries near University Parkway, Center Street or even 800 North, but in a little strip mall set way back from State Street around 1600 North.
But the idea of making access to liquor more convenient through more visible locations has unsettled a number of lawmakers. Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, noted that the proposal called for package stores, but because the state must share some of the profits, package stores bring in less to Utah's coffers than the current system under which the state does it all.
Other lawmakers express unease that better locations would lead to greater consumption. Maybe. But inconvenience may only discourage someone who just wants to buy a bottle of wine for dinner. If that's true in the main, then alcohol consumption could rise with convenience, but abuse may not.
Hardcore alcoholics will do whatever they have to do to get booze, and it might even be supposed that they will stock up for fear they'll run out later. So the paucity and poor locations of stores probably reduces revenue to the state yet does little if anything to reduce problem drinking.
It's a bit like the anti-gun argument -- more guns mean more crime. Of course, that is not true. When the state makes a concealed carry permit available to a law-biding citizen, it is not planting the seeds of a crime wave.
Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, has been working on bills to privatize some or all of liquor sales. He put his finger on the problem: "The main argument that we've made throughout is there's a structural problem having an agency responsible for both selling as much liquor as it can and controlling liquor."
The state has become dependent on the $300 million in annual sales. But many lawmakers simply don't want people to buy more liquor. Legislators want to reform the scandal-plagued DABC, but plainly are leery of radical changes.
Yet the state already condones the sale of many dangerous products. For example, retail stores sell cigarettes, which are a proven health hazard, and lawmakers aren't suggesting moving the cancer sticks to state-run stores located in out-of-the-way places to minimize sales.
Ditto for junk food that threatens Utahns' hearts and blood sugar levels. Do we need state-run candy stores? Obesity will be the No. 1 health cost of the future, not intoxication. How about state-run car lots, since cars can be quite dangerous?
Of course such suggestions are ridiculous. Almost any product can cause harm, and we don't need the state to get involved. Retail sales of most legal products are handled by private enterprise. Why should liquor be any different?
Privatization is the way to go, even if the State of Utah loses revenue. It shouldn't be in the business of retail sales at all -- much less the vending of vice.