Liquor store run

Maine’s budget crisis is making me very happy. That could be because, through most of it, I’ve been drunk.

Ever since I got a look at Governor John Baldacci’s budget, I’ve been raising my glass in honor of the state’s fiscal mess and drinking deeply. It’s not that I’m overjoyed about the layoffs, cutbacks, delayed tax breaks and creative bookkeeping necessary to balance the books for the next two years. I feel sorry for the people who’ll lose their jobs. I sympathize with the folks who won’t get needed services. I’m concerned about the declining fortunes of our schools, hospitals, roads, and environment.

But whenever such worries threaten to overwhelm me, I pour another slug from a bottle of top-shelf liquor.

I can afford the best because I bought my sauce in New Hampshire, where the price of strong drink remains reasonable, even though nothing else in that state is.

But if my Granite State supply runs low, I can probably still cover the tab for staying snockered until the economy straightens out. That’s because I’m betting the fiscal problems in Augusta will soon result in cheaper booze here in Maine.

Here’s how it could happen. Baldacci’s budget calls for closing the remaining 13 state liquor stores. The governor estimates those shutdowns and the accompanying layoffs of 50 employees will save $100 million.

I may be incapable of operating heavy machinery, but I can still do simple math. Unless they’re paying liquor-store clerks CEO-level salaries, that figure is grossly inflated.

Some investigative bar-hopping uncovered the truth. Dumping 50 salaries and not renewing 13 store leases amounts to chump change in a $5 billion budget. Most of that $100 million in savings doesn’t come from ending the state’s retail sales of alcohol.

The serious money in Baldacci’s proposal is a result of doing away with Maine’s control of the wholesale distribution of hooch.

"We’re getting out," said the governor’s mouthpiece, Lee Umphrey. "Completely out."

Alcohol consumers may not be aware that when they purchase vodka or gin in any of the 230 or so privately owned agency stores in Maine, that bottle came from a state warehouse. This control of the wholesale market allows state government to set prices and limit selection.

Abandoning that monopoly will save some money, but nothing like the $100 million Baldacci has budgeted. It costs only a tiny fraction of that amount to move cases of Johnnie Walker and Stoli from storage to store.

The big bucks in the governor’s budget will come from changing the habits of otherwise law-abiding Maine citizens like me, who regularly risk stiff fines by sneaking across the New Hampshire border to buy booze. It’s illegal to bring more than one big jug of out-of-state alcohol into Maine, but the chances are that if you’re a drinker living anywhere near the border, you do it regularly.

That’s because Maine prices aren’t just a little more than New Hampshire’s. They’re often a lot more. Enough more that the difference in one bottle can cover gas, tolls, meals, lodging, and legal fees.

Nobody knows how much revenue the state loses because of its pricing policies, but over the last decade, experts have put the figure at anywhere from $20 million to $60 million a year. Given my tab, that seems low, but let’s be conservative. After all, rich conservatives tend to drink the good stuff.

So pour a snifter of Courvoisier XO, and consider this. If allowing Maine’s private liquor stores to set their own prices results in cheaper deals closer to home, fewer people will be venturing to New Hampshire to stock the liquor cabinet. If allowing stores to expand their selections makes buying locally more attractive, tax revenue that’s been flowing out of state will drain into Maine’s general fund.

Baldacci’s fiscal wizards may be taking a wild (turkey) guess at the amount of cash Maine could gain in the next two years, but I suspect they’re correct in assuming that privatizing the booze biz will do positive things to the bottom line.

Now all that remains is to convince legislators, who’ve traditionally opposed ending state controls over alcohol sales, most recently during Angus King’s administration, when a more modest proposal to close state-run stores failed. The opposition, apparently unaware we’re already buying our hard stuff in New Hampshire, claimed turning the whole operation over to the private sector would result in increased consumption of alcohol.

Bogus argument. I can’t drink much more and still hit the righthdj keez on this compooter.

Baldacci is in a stronger position than King to accomplish this goal (closing stores, I mean, not hitting keys). The previous governor proposed the idea during the 1990s’ economic boom. The current chief executive is bringing it up in the shadow of a $1.1 billion budget shortfall.

As Umphrey put it, "The situation merits change that couldn’t happen in better times."

Here’s to recession.

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