Protectionists rail against alcohol freedom

By Steve Wilson
February 28, 2020

At a meeting of the Ways and Means Temperance Subcommittee Wednesday, legislators heard about the advantages and disadvantages of removing some of the nation’s most restrictive laws on alcohol.

There is building momentum to change the state’s antiquated policies enacted after the state was the last one nationally to end prohibition in 1966 after allowing the sale of beer in 1933. 

Ocean Springs Mayor Shea Dobson said he supports wine in grocery stores because of economic development, increased product availability, and its ability to possibly attract millennials. 

Mississippi Department of Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson told the subcommittee that he supports allowing package stores to sell lottery tickets. He also said that any attempt to bring wine to grocery stores would cause them to want to sell liquor as well.

His agency supports spinning off the state’s massive liquor and wine warehouse to a public/private partnership like the Mississippi Lottery. He said pure privatization would result in higher costs for consumers (since the state acts as the distributor and contracts shipping to an outside firm) and would cost the state $80 million in revenue annually from giving up the warehouse.

There is popular support for changing state law to sell wine in grocery stores. According to a telephone poll of 700 registered voters by Spry Strategies, 74 percent say they would support such legislation and 48 percent said they’d be more likely to vote for a legislative candidate who’d support the sale of wine in grocery stores. 

Wine sales in grocery stores are legal in 39 states, including Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana.

The poll was commissioned by Looking For Wine, a coalition that seeks to bring the sale of wine to grocery stores.

There are 600 permits issued for package stores in the state and 2,000 permits for restaurants and bars statewide.

According to the DOR, the warehouse’s damage rate is only 0.11 percent and it boasts an accuracy rate of 99.9 percent.

Victor Pittman is the president of the Mississippi Hospitality Beverage Association and owner of a package store, Silver Leaf Wines and Spirits, in Ridgeland. His organization has defeated efforts to bring wine to grocery stores in the past few years. 

 “Out of state retail corporations harvest money that could be recirculating in our local economies,” Pittman said. “Online retailers leave nothing for recirculation in the economy. Municipalities and our state lose because the tax base shrinks. Direct shipments would be disruptive and a disaster.” 

He told the subcommittee that allowing grocery stores to sell wine would largely put the state’s package stores out of business since most of their money comes from wine sales. He said increasing the number of permits would only dilute market share because of the state’s declining population. 

He also said any change to the state law — which by Mississippi counties and cities are “dry” and sales of alcohol are forbidden barring a local election to change a municipality or county to “wet” — would be an imposition upon the dry counties in the state.

“Big out-of-state grocery and box retailers have had years of practice of profiting off the destruction of public health in other states,” Pittman said. “Alcohol markets are unable to regulate themselves without being destructive to public health and safety. Any increase in consumption places an undue burden on taxpayers, public safety officials and the health care industry.” 

He also claimed that alcohol-related vehicular fatalities would go up if the state liberalized the sale of wine and spirits.

Subcommittee chairman and state Rep. Hank Zuber (R-Ocean Springs) asked Pittman if his organization would be willing to reach a compromise on allowing additional permits per entity to allow outlets like Costco and Trader Joes (which rely heavily on alcohol sales as part of their business model) to have multiple stores in the state. 

Pittman said his organization would open to a possible compromise.

Among the bills being considered by the legislature include:

- House Bill 979 would end the flip the default setting of “dry” to “wet.” If an area wants to go back to being dry if this bill became law, it’d have to hold another election.

- House Bill 4 would increase the maximum number of package retailer permits from the present one to three.

- House Bill 1088 and Senate Bill 2533 would allow individuals to purchase wine from an out-of-state winery and have it shipped to a package retailer in Mississippi. Right now, Mississippi is one of only five states to ban the direct shipment of wine to a consumer.

- House Bill 1381 would allow the sale and consumption of alcohol at athletic events at a public school, community college or university. It also “brings forward” code sections related to alcohol that could allow the legislature to enact further changes to state law.

- Senate Bill 2534 would authorize the direct shipment of wine to consumers.

The state is a control state, which means the state controls the distribution of wine and spirits. Even wine and liquor made in Mississippi have to go to the state’s warehouse in Gluckstadt before they can be shipped out to package stores, restaurants and bars statewide.


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