Attorney general again rejects proposal to open all of Arkansas to alcohol sales | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Attorney general again rejects proposal to open all of Arkansas to alcohol sales

Posted By on Sat, May 3, 2014 at 7:01 AM

click to enlarge HOW DRY WE ARE: Shaded counties are 'wet.'
  • HOW DRY WE ARE: Shaded counties are 'wet.'

For the third time yesterday, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel found technical reasons to reject the wording of a proposal to legalize alcohol sales in all Arkansas counties, but regulated by the legislature. A potentially powerful coalition could lobby for the measure if McDaniel doesn't prevent a petition campaign.

The majority of the counties in Arkansas are "dry" — meaning alcohol sales to the public are not allowed. In virtually all the dry counties, there are private club outlets where alcohol is sold by the drink.

A measure to legalize sales in all counties would open the door to grocery and convenience store sales of beer (and perhaps spirits, as many states allow, though that would be a tough legislative hurdle). You can see where the money and organizing power would come for a ballot initiative to vote the entire state wet. Counties can vote wet now by petitions signed by 38 percent of voters, a tough threshold, but not insurmountable. Walton money powered a successful campaign in Benton County. A petition drive is now underway in Craighead County, maybe the wettest dry county in Arkansas with many restaurants open to the public serving drinks under the "private club" exception. That loophole was widened by the legislature some years ago in the name of "economic development." Faulkner County similarly has been dampened by restaurant drink sales in nominal private clubs.

McDaniel insists the ballot proposal doesn't say enough about the specifics of the legislature's regulatory power. He also claims it's murky as to wet-dry status of areas of the state currently dry.

I think the proposal is simplicity itself, but I'm not a court of law. It seems perfectly reasonable to pass an amendment overriding local prohibitions on alcohol sales and then give to the legislature the power to delineate implementation. Retail liquor stores could be expected to fight fiercely to retain the current structure, particularly those operators sitting near the county lines of dry counties.

David Couch, a Little Rock lawyer, has proposed the initiative. He declined to identify specific backers, other than to point me in the direction of retailers who'd like to sell beer, but he said it grew out of discussions he had in the course of a successful legal fight against a new Arkansas law aimed at making it harder for groups to wage petition campaigns with paid canvassers. His win is on appeal by the state. 

Couch said he believes McDaniel won't approve the proposal no matter how it is written, so as to run out the clock on petition efforts. He said he's considering a direct action to the Arkansas Supreme Court, as the initiative statute allows. Couch believes McDaniel's disapproval of this and other measures, including several on marijuana legalization,  has begun to infringe on constitutional rights. "He is using his discretion in the ballot title approval process to make people draft laws that he likes and not what they like."

Couch said he was confident he could get the necessary signatures for the proposition in relatively short order if the wording could be approved.


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