Virginia may add to fees on alcohol

By Anita Kumar
Saturday, September 4, 2010

RICHMOND - Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), scrambling to make ends meet in his plan to privatize Virginia's 332 state-run liquor stores, is considering adding a fee on alcoholic drinks sold in restaurants and bars to help make up the $250 million in annual taxes and profits that state stores currently generate, according to Richmond sources familiar with the still-evolving plan.

Under the version of the proposal discussed with industry officials Friday, the drinks surcharge, which would be imposed either as a tax on customers or on restaurants' liquor receipts, would be part of a package of new fees including a per-gallon charge to wholesalers.

Democrats and restaurateurs immediately pounced on the proposal as a tax "on people drinking alcohol," as Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax) put it.

McDonnell pledged in his 2009 campaign to turn over the state's retail liquor business to private operators as a way to produce a windfall of as much as $500 million to fix roads. And the governor has said that his plan would achieve privatization without depriving Virginia of the nearly $250 million in profit that state-run stores generate.

A Washington Post survey of other states that have reduced the government's role in alcohol sales and distribution indicates that state revenues have often fallen short of politicians' projections. In Iowa in the late 1980s, for example, as a financial crisis brought about the collapse of dozens of farms and banks, officials frantically searching for new revenue shuttered the state's 207 liquor stores and allowed private companies to buy liquor licenses.

The result was not quite what politicians had promised. Private stores opened in new places and kept longer hours, but prices increased by 8 percent so retailers could take a profit, and selection narrowed as the state's free-standing stores were replaced by grocery or convenience stores that often limited their stock to bestselling brands. In 1987, the first year of privatization, the state took in about half of the bounty it had anticipated, according to interviews and news reports.

McDonnell would not comment Friday on the latest reports about his privatization plan, but earlier he said that it will fare better than other states' because they did not privatize correctly, failing to learn lessons from the 32 states that have had privately run liquor sales since Prohibition ended.

"We think they didn't do it right,'' he said. "We think the competition that will be generated for licenses will be significant. . . . Thirty-two states do it. They think the free market works."

McDonnell is considering auctioning up to 1,000 licenses to the highest bidders. The proposal, which would privatize alcohol sales from wholesale to distribution to retail, would allow Virginians to buy liquor at private liquor stores, grocery and convenience stores, and big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco. McDonnell expects Virginia will collect a one-time windfall from a variety of sources after privatization: $34 million from selling off properties such as a state liquor warehouse in Richmond, $160 million from wholesale license fees and several hundred million from auctioning off retail licenses, according to the sources.

The governor has cited research concluding that giving up state control of liquor sales would have no impact on drunken driving or other alcohol-related problems, but several other studies have found an increase in consumption in states where private operators take over from a state monopoly.

McDonnell's government reform commission will get his full proposal Wednesday, after which the governor expects to call legislators back to Richmond for a special session on privatization and other cost-cutting ideas.

As word of the latest proposal reached bars around the state, reaction was critical. Kenny Mitchell, who has managed Murphy's Grand Irish Pub in Old Town Alexandria for nine years, said he welcomes a privatized system if it brings cheaper prices and makes it easier to buy liquor. But not if it brings new taxes.

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