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It’s time Maryland allows beer and wine be sold at grocery, drug and convenience stores | COMMENTARY

Some think it's time that Marylanders be able to buy beer and wine at the grocery store.
Some think it's time that Marylanders be able to buy beer and wine at the grocery store. (Doug Kapustin, For The Baltimore Sun)

The return to school is just one of the many difficult choices imposed by the pandemic. Parents, students and teachers alike are concerned for their well-being, while our leaders seek answers to keep low income, nonwhite and special needs families from falling further behind. The Maryland Bureau of Revenue Estimates last projected a $1.1 billion state budget shortfall in FY2020 and estimates this could reach $2.6 billion in FY2021.

With this grim outlook, funding Kirwin Commission recommendations to improve education in the state and a settlement agreement over past discrimination at the state’s historically Black colleges and universities, let alone providing the most basic education and support for students and families in need, seems even further away from becoming reality.

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With education funding only one among the critical needs that are exacerbated by the pandemic, our legislators must develop creative solutions to support and bolster local economies and protect the most vulnerable among us. Budget cutting alone will not get us there. To bridge the massive gap, our leaders must consider new revenue streams. Chief among them, authorizing Maryland chain grocery, drug and convenience stores to sell beer and wine will deliver massive new revenues, create hundreds of local jobs and provide shoppers with increased choice, convenience and cost savings.

Here are the facts:

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  • Legalizing chain store alcohol sales is estimated to generate $100 million to $200 million to the state and 500 net new jobs, according to analysis by Sage Policy Group and Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws.
  • Forty-seven states permit grocery stores to sell beer; 40 states permit wine to be sold in grocery stores.
  • The Oklahoma ABLE Commission reported record revenue after its law change, with revenue of nearly $14 million in FY2019 up from $7.5 million before the law change; the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board reported a 4% increase in liquor tax the year after Act 39 became law.
  • A University of Denver study found that allowing Colorado chain stores to sell alcohol was expected to create 22,000 jobs and save Colorado consumers $485 million.
  • The Colorado Department of Transportation found the drunken driving fatalities hardly budged after the law changed.
  • Virginia, with its legalized chain store sales, has lower underage drinking than Maryland, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • 75% of Marylanders support changing the law according to a recent Gonzales poll.

Many Maryland businesses will benefit from chain store sales. Unionized grocers will hire more warehouse and store staff. Specialized grocers like MOM’s Organic Market will be able to showcase Maryland produced organic wines and craft beers. Bethesda-based Total Wine & More will bring construction jobs and well-paying store jobs as it has in more than 20 other states. Maryland’s burgeoning wineries, brewers and distillers will experience broader distribution. Beverage distributors will hire more drivers and purchase more trucks to service hundreds of more retail outlets.

What would be the impact on independent liquor stores? Legalizing chain store alcohol sales is not about big business vs. small. Only a small number of independent Oklahoma liquor stores closed by the end of 2018 at the same time that the state issued 3,300 new beer and 1,700 new wine licenses, according to the Oklahoma ABLE Commission. This is not about losing local jobs.

The chief opponent of this legislation, the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA), is a powerful special interest organization that has successfully scared our lawmakers into thinking this legislation will be the death of the local liquor retailer. But this hasn’t proven to be true in any other state that already has chain sales. The MSLBA has only a few hundred members out of the approximately 2,900 retail liquor outlets in Maryland. Even if it supports the greater good, the MSLBA will continue to fight this change for their own perceived strength and benefit.

We propose creating a statewide chain store license based on the different classes of retail trade. A club store should not pay the same as a convenience store or grocers or drugstores. Having the state comptroller issue these statewide licenses for each location means that chains have uniform operations across all our 24 jurisdictions. These licenses can also harmonize Sunday sales and modernize other county-specific alcohol sales restrictions. Statewide licensing also facilitates collection of the substantial upfront licensing fees and ensures the revenue gets into the state general fund in a timely manner.

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We urge our elected leaders to take charge on this issue. Gov. Larry Hogan should include the estimated economic benefit from legalized chain store alcohol sales in his upcoming state budget. More importantly, Governor Hogan should make the budget contingent on the enactment of the authorizing legislation.

The Maryland General Assembly and the governor should not exacerbate our problems by just accepting a reduced budget, placing greater burdens on local governments and families, and decreasing necessary services. While Maryland residents face tough choices during the pandemic, our elected leaders should not have a difficult time choosing to enact this legislation.

Adam Borden (aborden@mbbwl.org) is president of Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws. Tom Saquella (tsaquella@gmail.com) is the former president of the Maryland Retailers Association.

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