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Bill Roberts: Booze on the ballot

Convenience poor reason to sacrifice community

Letting grocery stores sell wine sounds like a great idea. Pick out a piece of fish and grab a chardonnay to go with it. Choose a steak and throw in a bottle of cab. Simple and easy.

All we are asked in exchange is to throw a few of our neighbors under the bus.

On the ballot this fall are three measures to change Colorado liquor laws. One, Initiative 122, would allow third parties to deliver alcohol from licensed dealers. This would seem innocuous, after all we can already order wine online. But the language of the measure appears to include delivering not just unopened wine or beer, but cocktails.

Is that a step forward? For whom? That question defines these three measures.

Initiative 96 would end Colorado’s limitation on how many liquor stores one retailer may own. Currently, the limit is three. Again, what is the purpose of changing that – and who stands to gain?

The only possible answer is big chains. Why is that to most residents’ advantage?

The most attention will undoubtedly be garnered by Initiative 121, which would allow grocery stores to sell wine. But again, who stands to gain or lose?

Most Colorado liquor stores are mom-and-pop operations or close to it. That means they are locally owned by people who share our community, our schools, our local government, our fears and aspirations.

The national chains that own and operate grocery stores can make no such claims. They are huge corporations that operate under several names across the country. As such, they are loyal to – and concerned with – only their own interests.

Corner grocery stores are long gone. But their demise was largely a function of market forces and changing times, not the manipulation of the state statutes.

Laws governing the sale of alcohol largely date to Repeal – the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s. Moreover, many of those laws are screwy and largely reflective of the world as it was 90 years ago.

But an entire industry has grown up shaped by that legal structure. It is not fair to penalize those whose livelihoods have been crafted around obeying the law.

Nor is it either necessary or particularly advantageous. The foremost argument the industry will advance will be convenience. But every supermarket in Durango and Cortez – perhaps in the whole state – has a liquor store within pistol range of its front door.

Choice will suffer as well. The big chains will offer a relatively small selection of the top selling, moderately priced wines. But there will not be that inexpensive stuff perfect for pizza night or that extravagant bottle for your anniversary.

And while backers will claim the chains’ buying power will lower costs, prices are set by what the market will bear. Store prices may well go down – for about 15 minutes. After that, the only rejoicing will be in distant boardrooms.

The pain of reduced sales and lost jobs would linger locally. That is a stiff price to pay for convenience.