You may have heard about a bill recently introduced in the Arkansas State Senate, and subsequently passed and sent to the Arkansas House of Representatives, which will establish a new permit class for the sale of wine at grocery stores. On its face, this bill seems innocuous enough, and certainly seems to be one that should garner support from the average wine drinker in the State. There is a case to be made that the consumer should have as much access as possible to ANY beer, wine, or spirit they wish to purchase. My friends and associates in the retail liquor industry make the counter-argument that allowing additional alcohol sales in grocery stores will create unfair competition with liquor stores, which are legally prohibited from selling groceries, and I also believe that is a fair stance. I tend to side with job creation/maintenance and keeping Arkansas dollars in the state, versus funneling them to large corporations and their shareholders, so a reasonable guess could be made as to my leanings on the *substance* of the bill.
Of course, no legislation exists in a vacuum, and the back-room workings on SB 284 are of as much, if not more, concern as the legislation itself. The bill is heavily backed by (and one might presume, at least partially written by) Wal-Mart, and sponsored by a senator from Northwest Arkansas; again, this is not surprising, as one would expect a major corporation to do its best to maximize dollars spent and profits earned, and for a local politician to support the local corporation that probably helped support his election. A short history lesson tells us that, as usual, it’s more complicated.
Efforts to create ballot initiatives to “go wet” in several dry counties, including my home of Faulkner County, have been heavily backed by Wal-Mart in the past. Those same efforts have been strongly opposed by county line liquor store owners in surrounding areas, particularly in Conway County and Pulaski County, with the primary form of opposition (besides money) being the invocation of Wal-Mart as the corporate beast looking to reap local dollars and… funnel them to corporations. So, the machinations of SB 284, as described here in the Arkansas Times, are eye-opening if not completely surprising:
“ Sen. Bart Hester is handling the bill for Walmart, which struck a deal with a handful of owners of some major so-called county line retail liquor stores… In return, Walmart said it wouldn’t push for eight years for more local option elections in dry counties from which the county-line liquor stores make huge profits currently.”
Oh boy. And that’s before you get to the actual language in the agreement, which actually goes much further (see link to article and agreement below).
The only thing clear about this is that it raises a lot of questions that don’t have clear answers. Wal-Mart, thwarted by the county liners in 2014, has decided to sleep with the enemy in order to further a different set of corporate interests, which is certainly their right. But what does this mean for the dry counties left in wretched, arid dust? In eight years (which if you’re counting at home, actually means the 2026 mid-term elections, almost TEN years away), will Wal-Mart be back as a proponent for wet referendums? If actual citizens decide to attempt a referendum on their own and put the people’s will against county line money (which I think is the more appropriate route, as a grassroots effort, than the Wal-Mart-backed profit-motivated attempts of the past) in the next eight years, is Wal-Mart going to come out *against* that effort, and therefore against their actual best interests? Will they abandon the county liners once they get what they want right now?
There is an interesting bit of language in the agreement, which reads that the coalition agrees “not to participate in any Statewide, County, Township or Local Option efforts” during the eight-year window. If this becomes a legally binding document, this language appears to prohibit Wal-Mart and the other entities involved from putting forth efforts, either for or against, any independently initiated referendums.
I’d of course like to say that it shouldn’t matter, that we should doggedly pursue better choices in our towns and counties, that we can beat back the pounding drums of corporate money, that we don’t need their help to increase our options in places like Faulkner County. Our ability to learn, our ability to try new things, our ability to serve, our ability to make our own adult decisions, are all hindered by the status quo, and I would like to think that we could make a difference on our own, without the participation/interference of the Wal-Marts and Krogers. But we know the reality: money talks, and in this case, the money is huge, and with the passage of this bill will be fully aligned against the people in many parts of our State.
Because of the agreement that comes along with it, and the clear effort to continue lining the pockets of the county line liquor store owners at the expense of those of us that are forced to pay them and those who will have to compete more directly with grocers, I can’t see this bill, so innocent on its face, as anything other than a direct assault on the very things it pretends to promote: access and choice.
The Arkansas Times article referenced can be found here: http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2017/02/10/the-grocery-store-wine-bill-whiskey-sellers-protest
Included in that link is a document with the specific terms of the agreement referenced above, also here: https://gallery.mailchimp.com/dfbfc56dfe6da08e916c4b2f5/files/a573bec2-802e-4ca3-af13-8320629d0c71/ABRA_agreement.pdf