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Barth: Get rid of dry counties 

click to enlarge 2012 map of dry areas in the U.S. Red is dry, yellow is semi-dry. - MR. MATTÉ VIA WIKIPEDIA COMMONS
  • Mr. Matté via Wikipedia Commons
  • 2012 map of dry areas in the U.S. Red is dry, yellow is semi-dry.

On Election Day 2013, Arkansas, arguably still the most "dry" state in the country, took another tiny step towards alcohol friendliness with a vote within the Park Hill neighborhood of North Little Rock. In margins ranging from 80 to 89 percent of the vote, precincts in an archaic township got rid of an outdated law prohibiting alcohol sales. The vote occurred in a neighborhood anticipating the creation of a restaurant zone that will in turn further revitalize the residential area.

In the generation and a half after World War II, no issue except civil rights separated progressives and traditionalists in Arkansas as emphatically as did one's stance on alcohol prohibition. Arkansas's alcohol laws, cemented in 1935 with a small set of "wet" counties (mostly in urban areas and the Delta) and a larger set of "dry" counties, were under much debate over the course of this era, as progressives such as Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller worked to modernize the state's liquor laws. Rockefeller was able to convince the state's legislators in 1969 to allow liquor by the drink in wet counties and to create a small number of private clubs in dry counties. Coming of age in a "wet" family in a "dry" county during this period, I was deeply aware that we were differentiated from local religious conservatives by our unconcealed trips to The County Line.

State Sen. Lu Hardin sponsored legislation making it harder to alter the liquor status quo in 1993, with legislation requiring petition signatures of a number equal to 38 percent of voters in the previous governor's election to place the wet/dry question on a county's ballot. (This contrasts with a comparable number equaling 6 percent of voters who have to be collected on petitions to place a typical initiated act on a ballot in the state.) In recent election cycles, however, local groups have been able to achieve this artificially high signature hurdle to get county voters to consider whether to liberalize liquor laws. When proponents have gotten the question to the ballot, they have been successful. After years of inaction on alcohol, a relative flurry of counties have become "wet" over the last two election cycles (Boone and Clark in 2010 and Benton, Madison, and Sharp in 2012), in addition to the North Little Rock vote in 2013. Local committees operating under names such as "Keep the Money in Madison County" have effectively reframed the conversation about alcohol as one of dollars and cents rather than heaven and hell even in some of the most socially conservative counties in the state.

In addition to the passage of these county-level alterations that have led to the issuance of liquor licenses, private club licenses have proliferated in dry counties as a result of 2003 legislation. This has further dampened historically dry portions of the state with towns like Jonesboro, Conway and Batesville transformed in terms of new entertainment and dining options.

The current system of liquor laws forces Arkansans to unsafely travel great distances to obtain alcohol, creates a protectionism for those lucky enough to have a lucrative liquor license near a county line bordering a dry county, and imposes moral tenets from the past on hundreds of thousands of living Arkansans. These recent elections described above reflect that it's time for a statewide vote to end the confusing array of alcohol prohibitions stymieing economic progress across the state, either through a petition campaign or by the legislature sending the issue to the people through a constitutional amendment.

The positive outcome for such a vote seems likely as economic and social libertarians now are in consensus on the topic of alcohol, with younger voters throughout the state increasingly favoring liberalization of liquor laws. Unquestionably, church-tied groups such as the Arkansas Family Council would fight any loosening of the state's liquor laws. However, other issues are now higher priorities for social conservative groups and all signs are that traditionalists are now simply outnumbered on the topic.

It's time, for Arkansas is the last state in the union with a majority of its counties dry. As we move further into the 21st century, it's time to get rid of a very clear vestige of the state's emphatic traditionalism and bring this decidedly 20th century conflict to an end.

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