Maryland's liquor lobby and the politics of obstruction
Thursday, December 24, 2009;
THIS TIME of year, holiday cheer often arrives in the form of a gift
basket. Very nice, but be warned: If the basket should contain a bottle
of wine and -- heaven forbid -- be sent directly to a recipient in
Maryland, the shipper and sender could be complicit in a felony.
For this absurdity we can thank Maryland's liquor lobby. The state's
barons of booze, who are among the most lavish donors of campaign cash
to state lawmakers, have done well for themselves. Only two or three
states impose lighter taxes than Maryland does on wine, beer and
spirits; for decades, efforts in Annapolis to raise those levies have
gone down in flames. And through an antiquated regime known as the
"three-tiered system," producers, wholesalers and retailers act in
cahoots to stymie consumers and limit selection by banning direct
shipments from wineries to Marylanders' homes.
With its cash, clout and stranglehold on the state legislature,
Maryland's liquor lobby should be confident enough to drop its
opposition to direct wine shipments. All but a dozen or so states have
scrapped similar bans in the age of cyber-shopping, and liquor
wholesalers and retailers have survived comfortably. In Virginia, for
instance, direct shipments, allowed since 2003, account for just 1
percent of wine sold in the state -- not exactly a mortal threat to the
commonwealth's liquor sellers.
But Maryland's liquor wholesalers won't give an inch. Until now,
neither have their (handsomely rewarded) champions in the legislature.
That may be changing. In the House of Delegates, Carolyn Krysiak, a
veteran Baltimore lawmaker who chairs the House Democratic caucus, has
broken ranks with her colleagues on the committee that has killed
attempts to allow direct shipments. Ms. Krysiak's conversion could have
repercussions, particularly if House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne
Arundel) gets on board; last year, a bill to permit direct shipping was
co-sponsored by more than half the members of the House and would have
passed easily had it survived the committee. Now there may be a chance.
In the state Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
(D-Calvert), whose family owns a liquor store, has taken little
interest in the issue. He should take more. Lifting the ban would
signal to voters that the Senate is capable of steering Maryland into
the modern era despite the toxic influence of the liquor lobby's
The industry's arguments against direct shipments are lame. One is
that teenagers might use it to circumvent the state's drinking age by
ordering alcohol delivered at home. In fact, most teens get beer (not
wine) by having an older friend buy it for them. The liquor lobby is
also fond of defending the status quo by pointing to a mechanism in
which consumers can direct-order wine for delivery to a nearby retailer
through the normal wholesale network. But that mechanism has proved
unwieldy and unworkable.
The current system is an oligopoly that serves the interests of a
tiny fraternity of insiders at the expense of consumers -- not to
mention Maryland's 41 wineries, which are also banned from shipping to
consumers. Mr. Miller, Mr. Busch and their legislative lieutenants in
Annapolis say the ban will be lifted at some point, but they won't
commit to a date. Until they do, Marylanders are entitled to be
outraged that their leaders continue bowing to big-spending special
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