It's a debate nearly as old as the end of Prohibition in Alabama.
But a conversation on whether the state should be in the retail liquor business is one worth having again, a north Alabama lawmaker says.
In fact, he thinks it's worth about $45 million a year.
That's what state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, says could be saved by eliminating the state's 172 Alcoholic Beverage Control Board-run stores and allowing independent business to handle all liquor sales.
"What we are looking at is a bill to remove the state from the retail sales business and bid out licenses for the private sector," Orr said. He chairs the Senate committee that oversees the state's General Fund.
Orr said the huge savings would come from eliminating rent on those 172 buildings, wages for about 600 employees and other overhead. He calculated that would account for $45.5 million that could go toward the General Fund, which supports non-education agencies.
But Democrats say if it were that simple, they would have done it years ago.
"It comes up every four or five years when you have a new administration," said state Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville.
The Senate Minority Leader said he studied the costs and revenues of ABC stores and believes closing them actually would cost the state.
State Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, said privatization was discussed 22 years ago when he joined the Legislature.
"And it was old news then," he said.
Morrow, a retired business and economics instructor at Northwest-Shoals Community College, said private business cannot operate the stores -- or generate revenue for the state -- better than ABC.
"We're getting the revenue," Morrow said. "And unless someone tells me different, with some numbers, I'd be opposed to any changes.
"It comes down to one thing: show me the money. Just to get rid of all these employees and say we are going to be better off is not necessarily the case."
Other Republicans say it's a plan worth talking about.
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the best argument against privatization is the number of employees who would lose their jobs, but he said he would favor the switch.
"There is a tremendous amount of money that comes into the state, and I think there would be even more if it were privatized," Greer said. "A majority of the states can't be wrong."
One of Eight States
Alabama is one of eight states still in the retail liquor business, Orr said. Until last year, there were 18.
Washington state was the first since Prohibition to fully extricate itself from retail and wholesale liquor, said Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes free markets.
Gilroy said states that operate wholesale or retail alcohol distribution are called "control" states, but he said the title is a misnomer.
"Whether or not you own and operate your own retail, all states control alcohol," he said, because they set laws and can punish private businesses that break them.
"At the end of day, regulation is a component in all 50 states," he said.
Orr said his bill would not change ABC's enforcement or alcohol warehousing functions. It would create a state commission to determine how many retail liquor licenses would be granted per municipality, "to address the liquor store on every corner concern."
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