McDonnell is handed legislative defeat as Virginia assembly drops bill to privatize liquor stores

Chris Schollian stacks boxes at the Springfield Plaza ABC store. A bill by Virginia's governor would have tripled the number of liquor outlets in the state.
Chris Schollian stacks boxes at the Springfield Plaza ABC store. A bill by Virginia's governor would have tripled the number of liquor outlets in the state. (Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:41 PM

RICHMOND - Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's proposal to privatize the state's liquor stores died quietly Tuesday - the biggest legislative defeat of his tenure - after months of lobbying lawmakers and residents about getting out of the alcohol business.

But the obituary for one of McDonnell's boldest campaign promises could have been written before the annual legislative session began last month after a series of missteps that prompted even members of his own party to oppose the plan.

McDonnell (R) is expected to return next year with a new proposal to privatize the state's 77-year-old monopoly on distilled spirits. The next 12 months will serve as a test of whether he can broker a compromise among competing factions on a complex issue that has confounded state officials for decades.

After a public campaign that included eight town-hall-style meetings across Virginia, a Web site and poll in support of the effort, and months of bully-pulpit interviews by the governor on what he sees as the merits of privatization, the General Assembly let McDonnell's bills die Tuesday without a vote or even a hearing. Tuesday marked the deadline for the House and Senate to pass their own bills.

Even before arriving in Richmond last month, members of both parties were weary of debating a plan they thought was fraught with problems. They feared that the plan, which included tripling the number of retail outlets that sell booze, would lead to an increase in alcohol consumption, a loss of state revenue and a rise in liquor prices.

"It has a lot of moving parts," said House Deputy Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who was concerned that the legislation would give big-box retailers and edge over mom-and-pop stores in his district. "It's tough to make everyone happy."

Democrats, who narrowly control the Senate, refused to let McDonnell's measure be heard until it was debated in the GOP-led House. But House Republicans declined to let the bill be considered because it was expected to be killed: A Democrat had introduced the legislation against McDonnell's wishes.

"I think we need to step back and work on something for next year," said Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

Republicans promised they would examine the issue in future years but made no apologies for not moving forward this session after repeatedly warning the governor that they thought he was investing too much of his political capital.

"The administration galvanized around this piece of legislation so early on, long before the General Assembly came to town," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City). "Sometimes when you get so engrossed in something so early, it's difficult to get extricated from it."

Democrats, who had always opposed the idea, crowed over the outcome and promised they would not let McDonnell play down the failure to even get his proposal heard.

"It is fair to say that it's a defeat of a major initiative that Governor McDonnell spent considerable time and effort trying to achieve," said House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry).

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