Every day, scores of residents leave Montgomery County to buy alcohol in the District, Northern Virginia and Prince George’s County. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering you can buy a bottle of Absolut vodka for 42 percent less or a bottle of Patrón Silver tequila for 26 percent less than what you’d pay at a government-run store just by crossing the Montgomery County line.
Unlike any other jurisdiction in Maryland, Montgomery County directly controls both the retail sales of liquor and the wholesale distribution system. Therefore, every alcoholic beverage bought in Montgomery County, including beer and wine or an adult beverage at a restaurant or bar, must be purchased through the government. In a highly competitive industry, in a county that neighbors five jurisdictions, our local government has a monopoly over the alcohol we buy.
The result is a Prohibition-era system that eliminates competition, charges higher prices, offers fewer product choices and increases burdens on small businesses. The county alcohol monopoly amounts to nothing more than a consumer tax, charging prices considerably above market rates at the expense of residents and small businesses. It undermines the efforts of a county that has invested wisely to establish regional destinations for dining and entertainment, including Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville and Gaithersburg.
For years, we’ve heard the same tired excuse from those who cling to a broken status quo opposed by an overwhelming majority of county residents, that we can never get rid of this system — even though it inhibits consumer choice, stymies competition and levies a significant tax on consumers — simply because it brings in a lot of revenue to the county’s coffers.
As Maryland’s chief tax collector and the state’s regulator of alcohol, I have no doubt that the economic activity generated by lifting the monopoly and allowing for an open, competitive market would more than offset any small amount of lost revenue to the county’s $5 billion operating budget. Don’t just take my word for it: Look at the facts in Worcester County, until recently the only other jurisdiction in Maryland that operated a wine and liquor distribution monopoly. Legitimate competition there has led to better service, more choice, a better small-business environment and a healthier local economy.
That’s why I’ll be working with leaders in the General Assembly this session to introduce legislation to end Montgomery County’s alcohol monopoly. It wouldn’t shut down the county’s stores or its distribution network, but it would end the monopoly and offer consumers and small businesses the choice they desperately want by allowing the private sector to compete.
If Montgomery County’s liquor dispensary is capable of lowering its costs while improving its selection and customer service, everyone will win. But I have my doubts.
There are things that the government does well, but the sale and distribution of alcohol are not and have never been among them. It’s time we put an end to this antiquated and bureaucratic monopoly and allow adult consumers, not politicians, to make their own responsible choices when it comes to alcohol.
Together, we can end the monopoly.
The writer is Maryland comptroller.