While most folks have been pre-occupied with the issue of whether gay people should have the right to marry, efforts have been under way quietly to make a social change in Arkansas law that would affect far more people.
If you haven’t heard much about the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Amendment, you will soon. Chances are that it will become a major issue for the Nov. 4 general election.
The proposed amendment would repeal most of the crazy quilt of Arkansas’ liquor laws and replace it with one law allowing the “manufacture, sale, distribution and transportation of intoxicating liquors” within every county of the state.
That’s right: no more “dry” counties.
Actually, for a few years a common joke in my county, Craighead, has been that it’s the wettest dry county in Arkansas because of its 35 or so “private clubs,” where liquor can be sold. That wasn’t really true until a couple of years ago — Benton County had about 100 more private clubs than we did — but then Benton County voted itself wet.
That happened in large part because Wal-Mart interests wanted to be able to sell alcoholic beverages in their stores. The vote wasn’t even close — 2 to 1 in favor.
The same year voters in Sharp and Madison counties approved alcohol sales, as did one neighborhood in North Little Rock. Two years earlier Boone and Clark counties did the same.
Until that point a 1993 law sponsored by then-state Sen. Lu Hardin of Russellville had been quite successful in preventing wet-dry elections, including one in his own county. I was editor of The Courier there in the late 1990s when a well-organized drive to call an election failed, as did a legal challenge.
The organizers simply could not meet Act 243’s unreasonable minimum requirement — petitions including signatures representing 38 percent of all registered voters in the county within a fairly short time. Hardin explained that he raised the standard from 30 percent to prevent wet-dry elections because they were so divisive. Similar efforts in other counties met the same fate.
That led to numerous efforts to change or circumvent the law. The one that finally succeeded, at least in part, was Act 1813 of 2003. Until then private club permits were mostly limited to country clubs, veterans’ organizations and closed fraternal groups. But Act 1813 added a “tourism purpose,” which opened the door to hotels and restaurants.
The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board began granting permits in much greater numbers.
Eventually, the economic advantages of allowing liquor sales began to sink in, and large businesses have gotten involved, bringing more resources to the front.
Now we have a well-organized, well-financed petition drive that proposes to change the laws statewide with a single election. The effort is being led by attorney David Couch, who has offices in Little Rock and Heber Springs. He is a native of Newport and a life-long resident of Arkansas who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Arkansas.
Last week, on his fourth try, Couch gained the approval of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel for the popular name and ballot title of the proposed Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Amendment.
That cleared the way for gathering signatures to get the proposal on the ballot. Since the proposal would amend the Constitution, the signatures must represent at least 8 percent of the number of people who voted for governor in the last general election (2010). That’s 78,133, of which at least 5 percent must come from 15 different counties. The deadline is July 7.
That’s a far more democratic standard than Hardin’s law. Consider that the petition drive for Benton County alone required 41,171 signatures.
When you suppress democratic principles in this country, sooner or later you pay the price.
Couch won’t say who is financing the campaign, but it is apparently related to local wet-dry drives in Craighead, Faulkner and Saline counties that were already in progress. Arkansas Business reports that those are sponsored by a committee called Our Community, Our Dollars, led by Jay Allen, a former Wal-Mart executive, and Polly Martin, president of the Arkansas Grocers & Retail Merchants. Wal-Mart and Kum & Go, the convenience store operator, are funding the committee, the newspaper said.
To gather signatures for both state and local efforts, Couch and the committee have engaged the services of National Ballot Access, a company also used in the petition drives in Boone and Benton counties. NBA representatives have been set up at Wal-Mart and Kroger stores in Jonesboro, Conway and Benton for several weeks. They will now have another petition to handle.
A Web site, www.ourcommunityourdollars.com, has been established, and it provides a little information. Mainly, though, its function appears to be to gather names and contact information from supporters in the three counties.
Understandably, the opposition is a little behind in organizing. But last week an organization calling itself Local Citizens for Safety and Prosperity sent out a mailer in Craighead County, urging citizens not to sign what it called the “hard alcohol petition.” The mailer also referred to a Web site, www.KeepCraigheadSafe.com, but to date the site is has nothing more than the one side of the mailer.
Surely, the battle is just beginning, though.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.