Idaho supporters of two sometimes competing conservative values, small government and temperance, are preparing to square off in a scaled-down replay of last fall’s epic Washington contest over Initiative 1183.
Self-described Reagan Republicans have filed an initiative that would privatize liquor sales in Idaho. Getting the state out of the booze business would shrink government, backers say, and remove alcohol’s stain from the hands of Idahoans personally opposed to its consumption.
In passing I-1183, liberal Washington voters bought that small-government argument. It helped that the measure’s supporters estimated privatization will generate an additional $480 million in revenue for state and local governments over the next six years. And it helped that Costco alone spent almost $21 million on the measure’s behalf.
Big grocers like Safeway were supporters, too. In Idaho, the grocers are prepared to give legislators a run at privatization before going the initiative route. The Reaganites are pushing ahead. But they confront two problems supporters of the Washington initiative did not.
Temperance is not the way to riches for Idaho, according to a study done last year for the state’s Liquor Division. After a first-year revenue kick from the sale of licenses, the state would add less than $250,000 to its annual take from alcohol. The division’s estimated gross revenue for 2011 was $66.4 million, yielding about $48.1 million for state and local government.
Of course, that depends on markups at the warehouse – if the state kept wholesaling liquor – or whatever liquor tax legislators might decide to impose if Idaho gets out of the business entirely. But the study also assumed a doubling of liquor outlets in Idaho to more than 330.
So much for temperance.
And therein lies a challenge for the forces of small government. Section 24 of the Idaho Constitution says: “The first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people, and the purity of the home. The legislature should further all wise and well directed efforts for the promotion of temperance and morality.”
“First concern,” mind you.
For small-government, pro-temperance constitutionalists, the mind boggles.
How privatization in Washington shakes out just adds complexity to Idahoans’ dilemma. The Liquor Division has already shelved expansion plans for stores in Post Falls and Oldtown until officials can assess what effect changes in pricing and demand this side of the border might have. Post Falls, with sales of more than $5 million, is the biggest outlet, by sales, in the state.
We supported privatization in Washington. We would do so in Idaho. State-controlled liquor sales are a dated vestige of Prohibition.
On what side of the argument that “first concern” lies, we leave to others.
Former President Ronald Reagan, by the way, reportedly drank nothing stronger than a lightly spiked orange blossom cocktail.