The Idaho State Liquor Division has a new plan: Spend $15,000 of liquor division dedicated fund money on a website to offer “drink recipes” and “party planning tips” to consumers, and $197,000 to expand five existing liquor stores. The proposal is outlined in the division’s appropriation request document for 2013.
“Over the last 15 years or so, the spirits industry has seen a lot of innovation in its product offerings,” Jeff Anderson, liquor division director, told IdahoReporter.com. “Whereas you used to have straight vodka and maybe a couple of brands, today you’ve got multiple craft distillers, flavored vodkas, and so forth.”
Anderson’s request notes that the website would provide Idaho consumers “with relevant content that a 21st century consumer has come to expect out of a modern retailer.”
The expansion plans come at a time when the liquor division has been under increased scrutiny. In May of this year the agency was the subject of nationwide publicity when it banned the sale of the “Five Wives” brand of vodka because, according to Anderson and his staff, the concept of the “five wives” is a reference to polygamy, an idea that Anderson believed was offensive to members of the Mormon Church despite the church abandoning the practice more than a century ago. The agency reversed its decision weeks later and now allows Five Wives vodka to be sold.
But a new policy in Washington state has also raised questions about the liquor division. The state has dismantled its state-run liquor system altogether. While some members of Idaho’s Legislature suggest that it’s time for the Gem State to pursue a similar course, proponents of keeping the division insist that it is required by the Idaho Constitution.
Article 3 of Idaho Constitution makes reference to the government’s role in promoting “temperance and morality.” Specifically, Article 3 Section 26 states that “the legislature of the state of Idaho shall have full power and authority to permit, control and regulate or prohibit the manufacture, sale, keeping for sale, and transportation for sale, of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes …”
In addition, the mission statement of the liquor division makes it clear: “The mission of the Idaho State Liquor Division is to provide control over the importation, distribution, sale, and consumption of distilled spirits; to curtail intemperate use of beverage alcohol; and to responsibly optimize the net revenues to the citizens of Idaho.”
But does this mean that the state government is required to own and operate liquor stores?
“I don’t believe so,” Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, told IdahoReporter.com. “I believe more accurately that it’s a policy choice that previous Legislatures have made, and I’m open to considering a change.”
Similarly, Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, told IdahoReporter.com that “when it comes to issues of state versus private involvement, my ‘default’ position is with the private sector, and that’s where I lean on this issue as well.”
Despite the interest in privatization, the liquor agency’s document argues that the extra $197,000 for store expansions would likely be recouped over the next two years with increased sales. “We’re not trying to encourage liquor consumption here,” Anderson said. “Indeed, we encourage temperance in a variety of different ways. But Idahoans need to understand that while alcoholic beverage consumption has remained fairly static in recent years, consumption has nonetheless shifted from beer and wine to liquor. Idahoans aren’t necessarily drinking more, but they are drinking differently.”
Burgoyne, however, believes that the state government is in a conflict. “We started out in the 1930s wanting to ‘control’ alcohol use, but now the state has become dependent on liquor’s financial benefits.”
In fiscal year 2011, liquor profit distribution totaled $50.2 million: general fund, 30.3 percent; counties, 21.2 percent; court services, 6.8 percent; substance abuse treatment, 4.1 percent; public schools, 2.4 percent; welfare fund, 1.3 percent; community colleges, 1.2 percent; and court supervisor fund, 0.9 percent.
Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, sees a conflict as well, noting that “if selling liquor were a private business, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
Fulcher suggests that the proposed website project may be unnecessary. “Government agencies have a tendency to justify their existence. In this case, posting things like drink recipes may be just that.”
Gov. Butch Otter’s office declined to comment on the new appropriation requests.