Maryland's liquor lobby and the politics of obstruction

Thursday, December 24, 2009

THIS TIME of year, holiday cheer often arrives in the form of a gift basket. Very nice, but be warned: If the basket should contain a bottle of wine and -- heaven forbid -- be sent directly to a recipient in Maryland, the shipper and sender could be complicit in a felony.

For this absurdity we can thank Maryland's liquor lobby. The state's barons of booze, who are among the most lavish donors of campaign cash to state lawmakers, have done well for themselves. Only two or three states impose lighter taxes than Maryland does on wine, beer and spirits; for decades, efforts in Annapolis to raise those levies have gone down in flames. And through an antiquated regime known as the "three-tiered system," producers, wholesalers and retailers act in cahoots to stymie consumers and limit selection by banning direct shipments from wineries to Marylanders' homes.

With its cash, clout and stranglehold on the state legislature, Maryland's liquor lobby should be confident enough to drop its opposition to direct wine shipments. All but a dozen or so states have scrapped similar bans in the age of cyber-shopping, and liquor wholesalers and retailers have survived comfortably. In Virginia, for instance, direct shipments, allowed since 2003, account for just 1 percent of wine sold in the state -- not exactly a mortal threat to the commonwealth's liquor sellers.

But Maryland's liquor wholesalers won't give an inch. Until now, neither have their (handsomely rewarded) champions in the legislature.

That may be changing. In the House of Delegates, Carolyn Krysiak, a veteran Baltimore lawmaker who chairs the House Democratic caucus, has broken ranks with her colleagues on the committee that has killed attempts to allow direct shipments. Ms. Krysiak's conversion could have repercussions, particularly if House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) gets on board; last year, a bill to permit direct shipping was co-sponsored by more than half the members of the House and would have passed easily had it survived the committee. Now there may be a chance.

In the state Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), whose family owns a liquor store, has taken little interest in the issue. He should take more. Lifting the ban would signal to voters that the Senate is capable of steering Maryland into the modern era despite the toxic influence of the liquor lobby's campaign cash.

The industry's arguments against direct shipments are lame. One is that teenagers might use it to circumvent the state's drinking age by ordering alcohol delivered at home. In fact, most teens get beer (not wine) by having an older friend buy it for them. The liquor lobby is also fond of defending the status quo by pointing to a mechanism in which consumers can direct-order wine for delivery to a nearby retailer through the normal wholesale network. But that mechanism has proved unwieldy and unworkable.

The current system is an oligopoly that serves the interests of a tiny fraternity of insiders at the expense of consumers -- not to mention Maryland's 41 wineries, which are also banned from shipping to consumers. Mr. Miller, Mr. Busch and their legislative lieutenants in Annapolis say the ban will be lifted at some point, but they won't commit to a date. Until they do, Marylanders are entitled to be outraged that their leaders continue bowing to big-spending special interests.

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