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Lawmaker Wants Liquor Privatized But Hopes Are Low For Bill To Get Idaho Out Of Liquor Business

Thu., Dec. 12, 1996

With the state’s liquor dispensary seemingly on the rocks, Ketchum Sen. Clint Stennett asks whether the entire industry should be privatized in Idaho.

The state runs 46 stores with 240 workers, and sells about 500,000 cases, or 6 million bottles of hard liquor a year.

It contracts with 100 private stores to sell liquor for a commission, and generated $16.9 million this year for the state’s community colleges and local governments.

Stennett, the Democratic minority caucus chairman, has unearthed a 1985 bill to privatize the industry.

“You just read about the strife and the things that are going on at the administrative level. They’re always asking for a new appropriation to build a new liquor warehouse. It just becomes a philosophical question of whether the state ought to be in the business.”

Privatizing could mean stores could sell alcohol on Sundays and holidays, and expand on the 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. hours the state allows, Stennett said.

The state would have fewer employees on its payroll and fewer pensions to fund.

But the bill would face opposition, he said, from lawmakers who like the system and those who oppose drinking for religious reasons.

“I don’t think it would get out of committee,” said Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, a retired accountant.

A mix of conservative free market advocates and liberal factions might like such a proposal, but they would immediately run into snags, he said.

For one thing, turning it over to private hands could mean more drinking, more drunken driving, and more burdens on police, Bunderson said.

He also pointed out the state Constitution calls for the “virtue and sobriety of the people,” which the Legislature must uphold.

Lawmakers also would have to alter liquor, wine and beer taxes to make them more equitable.

Currently, hard liquor returns much more to the state than the $3 million that wine and beer provide, Bunderson said. The beer and wine lobby would likely protest larger taxes.

Some private contractors who pick up liquor shipments from state stores and hand the revenue to the state would welcome the extra trade.

“I think that our laws in Idaho, as far as not being able to buy liquor on Sundays, or in bars on Sunday, I think we’re kind of behind the times,” said contractor Joe Cosinteno of Hollister.

Eighteen states have controlled liquor sales, and none have privatized since the end of prohibition, said Liquor Dispensary Supervisor Dyke Nally.

Privatization would only serve to drive up the price of hard liquor, Nally said. Private vendors would profit, and the state would likely tax the liquor to make up for the loss of its share of profit.

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