LOBBYISTS ASSOCIATED in one way or another with liquor, beer and wine sales in Maryland are making life exceedingly uncomfortable for many an ambivalent Annapolis lawmaker. At issue is a perfectly reasonable bill to undo a discriminatory restriction on beer and wine sales in the state; right now, thanks to a bad law enacted last year, new licenses for beer and wine package sales are forbidden to chain stores or discount houses. This has been bad news for the consumer, of course, since the freeze limits the kind of good-old-fashioned competition that brings lower prices. Instead, tavern owners and other off-premises sellers have had their profits neatly protected for them.
This cozy arrangement is being vigorously defended by one of the toughest and most successful lobbies in Annapolis -- the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Dealers Association. Under the misleading name, "Committee Against Multiple Licenses and Monopolies," the liquor businesses are mobilizing some 7,000 tavern owners and package-goods dealers throughout the state to fight the bill that would open up sales. They make much of the need to protect "the little guy" in business, glossing over the opportunities serious competition would offer to many independent store owners not to mention "Ma and Pa" consumers .
Another group, made up of chain and independent grocers, drug stores, unions and trade associations -- organized as the "Committee for Effective Marketing Action" -- is lobbying for passage of the measure. These representatives note that the bill would not automatically mean unlimited beer and wine licenses; the amendments would merely grant retail outlets the authority to apply to each county's board for licenses. This also would help individual package store owners who, under the existing restrictions, are barred from getting new licenses for any expansions.
Since liquor store and tavern owners are among the most generous campaign contributors in Maryland -- and since there are three liquor store owners and two former owners on the House committee that will consider the measure -- supporters of the bill this year will have a tough struggle making the case for consumers. Committee members already are pointing to the number of telephone calls and letters they have received from tavern owners. Whether consumers will answer back remains to be seen. But fair-minded legislators ought to recognize the wrongness of restricted trade that protects the "ins" of the beer and wine business at the expense of free enterprise and competitive pricing.