Last year, Maryland lawmakers imposed the state’s first alcohol-specific tax increase in 40 years, forced thousands of drunk drivers to install blood-alcohol testing devices in their cars and allowed residents to have wine bottles shipped directly to their doorsteps.
In comparison, few may notice the alcohol legislation under consideration this year.
The legislature on Monday returned to the work of tweaking the state’s cumbersome alcohol laws to accommodate rule changes sought by restaurants, clubs and other retailers.
The perennial excercise is derided by good government groups who say local liquor boards may be a more appropriate venue than the state legislature for many decisions. But the process employs a small army of lobbyists and keeps lawmakers tied up with hundreds of votes.
More than 40 of the bills came before the House Economic Matters committee on Monday. A handful of the proposals would result in statewide changes, including one that would let diners bring their own wine to a restaurant, club or hotel, but allow businesses to charge a corkage fee to consume it. Another would allow micro-breweries and pub-breweries to provide beer samples.
But most of the bills would each impact just one business.
One such measure would allow the state’s only distillery — Blackwater Distilling in Queen Anne’s County, which received its license last May — to conduct guided tours and serve samples.
Another would increase the distance that a liquor store is required to be from a school or church, to accommodate one Baltimore neighborhood.
At least one proposal hit close to home for a group of residents from Baltimore’s Park Heights neighorhood who crowded the hearing room, clapping and jeering at times during testimony. They came in support of a bill that would change the time at which liquor stores must stop selling alcohol from midnight to 10 p.m. in their community, which is known for having a high crime rate.
Del. Barbara A. Robinson (D-Baltimore), who sponsored the legislation, said neighboorhood liquor store owners — who oppose the bill — downplay the crime that takes place near their stores. “Why, then, do they operate their businesses from behind bullet-proof glass?” she said.
Many of the liquor store owners around Park Heights are Korean, a fact that added racial tension to the debate started by Robinson.
“If the Koreans want to give back to the community ... help the community to teach their children not to go the way of crime. Give the children a chance and a better future and a better quality of life,” the Baltimore lawmaker said.
“We’re not racist. We just don’t want liquor establishments to be open at an hour when crime is so high in that community,” said Julius Colon, who heads Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit organization that promotes redevelopment of the area.
Jay Park, chairman of the Korean American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, said Korean Americans “obey the laws and follow the rules.”
“One thing we don’t like to be is a target or scapegoat for the societal problems around us,” he added.
“We don’t believe anyone’s a racist. It’s just that these bills single out an ethnic minority,” said Bryan K. Everett, an attorney for the liquor store owners.