The scene at Comptroller Peter Franchot's task force on Maryland beer laws this week was disappointing but not surprising. The question of the day was whether beer sales should be allowed in grocery stores, and the discussion was dominated by opponents of the idea. Retailers, who are delighted to maintain their state-sanctioned protections from competition, packed the room and spoke with a unified voice against it. Craft brewers, bloodied after a tussle with the entrenched powers-that-be in Maryland's alcohol industry during this year's legislative session, see no point in taking on the fight. And even Mr. Franchot, who railed during this year's legislative session against the "crony capitalism" and "deals in smoke-filled back rooms" that are the norm for Maryland regulation of alcohol, opposes grocery store sales of beer, something that is legal in at least 41 states.
We'll grant that Mr. Franchot's "Reform on Tap" task force may not be the right venue for the conversation. The comptroller's explicit goal is to seek reforms of liquor laws to help boost the craft brewing industry, some of whose members believe they would be hurt by grocery store sales. The theory is that if grocers put mom-and-pop stores out of business, there will be fewer places overall for small brewers to sell their products, and big grocery chains will be more inclined to sell macro-brews that they can buy in bulk.
That fear is largely unfounded. Eight of the top 10 states when it comes to the number of craft breweries per capita allow grocery store sales of beer (and usually wine and liquor, too). So do eight of the bottom 10 states, which is to say that there appears to be no obvious correlation between the two issues. The much bigger questions for craft brewers are the limits on taproom operations that were the subject of this year's General Assembly flight and the decades-old state laws governing franchise agreements between producers and wholesalers. The rules are predicated on the notion that the producers have all the power in the relationship, which when it comes to craft brewers in Maryland, is precisely the opposite of the truth. Whether beer is sold in grocery stores is simply not their fight.
But it is and always has been the fight of the powerful lobby representing Maryland's alcohol retailers who so dominate the debate in Annapolis that lawmakers virtually never so much as raise the question. The voice of consumers, who would likely appreciate the convenience of picking up a six-pack of beer or perhaps a bottle of wine without making an extra stop, as approximately 85 percent of Americans can do without any obviously deleterious effects on the republic, is altogether absent.
Maryland's law governing alcoholic beverage sales declares it to be "the policy of the state to authorize the exercise of the powers provided by this article to displace or limit economic competition by regulating and engaging in the sale or distribution of alcoholic beverages" — but only for a few specific purposes. Such meddling in the market is allowed to "obtain respect and obedience to law; foster and promote temperance; prevent deceptive, destructive, and unethical business practices; and promote the general welfare of ... residents by controlling the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages." Protecting the interests of a particular class of business owners doesn't make the list.
It's disappointing that Mr. Franchot's outrage at the special interest-dominated regulation of Maryland's alcohol industry only goes so far. On this issue, Maryland consumers need a champion with some clout. Where's a pro-business, free-market governor when you need one?
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