State legislators have jumped into the fray over the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control by suggesting a number of bills designed to end county officials' headaches with the ailing department.
One of those bills would abolish the department, curing the headaches by chopping off the head. Another would require a new study of the department, seeking yet another diagnosis of the department's ills, a second opinion of sorts. And another bill would make a certain questionable practice of the department indisputably legal, providing a Band-Aid for the department and county officials.
Every year, state legislators suggest at least a dozen bills to regulate alcoholic beverages. But this year their interest in the liquor business is even greater than usual because of a consultant's findings that the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control has shown favoritism in its purchasing practices.
The department, which purchases all liquor that comes into the county and has a monopoly on its sale through the department's 21 retail stores, gives a disproportionately large amount of business to Schenley Industries, Inc., a New York-based liquor firm with ties to County Executive Charles W. Cilchrist, according to the consultant and county records.
Gilchrist has denied that any impropriety exists. He has disputed the consultant's findings, fired the consultant and ordered a new study of the department's purchasing practices.
But the state legislators, perturbed by headlines about "liquorgate" in the good government realm of Montgomery County, are not content to wait for the new study. They want to provide a legislative cure during the session of the state General Assembly that will open in January in Annapolis.
Republican Del. Robin Ficker, for example, suggested the bill that would abolish the department, get the county out of the liquor business and let private businesses control the purchasing and sale of liquor.
"There are a lot of questions in my mind about why the government is doing something that private enterprise does almost everywhere else," Ficker said.
Private entrepreneurs in Montgomery County like Ficker's bill. But most state delegates from Montgomery County do not. They believe that Ficker's bill is too drastic a measure, so they decided at a recent meeting not to take the bill to Annapolis.
Democratic Del. Ida Ruben is suggesting a less drastic bill -- one that may make it to Annapolis. Ruben would like a state legislative committee to study the department to determine why it does not make more of a profit, why it does not sell cold beer, and why it has been closing some of its retail stores. Then the committee would make suggestions to improve the performance -- and profits -- of the department.
Her proposed study could be worthwhile -- if the committee's suggestions are followed. Since Gilchrist has been in office, the Department of Liquor Control has reduced the business of the county-owned liquor stores and given more business to privately owned wine and cheese shops by curtailing the county-owned stores' sales of cold beer, by closing the county shops earlier, and by reducing the number of county-owned stores.
Such measures have made the private owners of the wine and cheese shops quite happy. But no one seems to know whether such measures will cut deeply into the profits of the county Department of Liquor Control. Since the department's profits defray property taxes, it might be important to find out.
Another bill, a Band-Aid type of measure, would make legal a questionable practice by the Department of Liquor Control. For several decades, the department has been selling wines that contain more than 14 percent alcohol to the privately owned wine and cheese shops in the county. But it is illegal for the wine and cheese shops to sell such wine, according to state law.
Nevertheless, the wine and cheese shops have been selling the potent wines such as "Richard's Wild Irish Rose" and "Thunderbird." An inspector from the county health department several months ago alerted the county Board of License Commissioners to the illegal sales. The wine shops could have been forced to stop selling the strong wines. Instead, board commissioner Marian Gamache asked the state delegation chairman, Democrat David L. Scull, to sponsor a bill that would change the state law, making it legal for the wine shops to sell wine that contains more than 14 percent alcohol.
In addition to the proposed bills that would affect the Department of Liquor Control, there are a number of bills that would bring about other changes in the laws governing alcoholic beverages.
One of the more controversial would change the law that has kept bars and taverns out of Montgomery County. That law states that all places that serve alcoholic beverages must serve twice as much food as alcohol, based on dollar amounts of sales. The proposed new bill would change that ration, requiring that places that serve alcoholic beverages serve as much food as alcohol, instead of twice as much food as alcohol.
Opponents of the bill say it will bring saloons to Montgomery County. The bill, which may make it to Annapolis, is sponsored by delegation chairman Scull at the request of license board commissioner Marian Gamache.
Another controversial bill would revoke the liquor licenses of private clubs or organizations in the county that discriminate against persons on the basis of race, creed, sex or national origin. The bill also would prevent organizations that discriminate against persons from getting state tax exemptions, such as the amusement tax exemption and the sales tax exemption.
Opponents of the bill say clubs such as the Elks, the Loyal Order of the Moose and the Chevy Chase Women's Club should not be penalized for having limited memberships.