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NC legislators balk at liquor law changes. Sunday is ‘the Lord’s day,’ one says.

What you might not know about ABC stores in NC

Find out where North Carolina's liquor comes from and what the dry counties are.
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Find out where North Carolina's liquor comes from and what the dry counties are.

A majority of North Carolinians believe the state government should leave the liquor business, according to a pair of recently released polls.

But privatization may be a long way off.

Some legislators on Monday hesitated to support even small changes to the state’s current system of controlling both wholesale and retail distribution of liquor.

The system has enabled the state to generate more revenue than any other state in the southeast while also maintaining the second-lowest consumption rate, according to nonpartisan legislative staff. However, the state is missing out on opportunities to make more money, according to the staff — and the public appears to want change.

About 53 percent of 625 registered voters supported privatization in a Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy survey, while 52 percent of 379 registered voters supported changes to state-controlled liquor sales, according to a new Elon University poll.

“North Carolina residents have been saying it for years — they just want to purchase a bottle of liquor at the nearest grocery store like it’s done in most every other state,” the NC Retail Merchants Association said in a statement Monday.

Some lawmakers aren’t so sure that’s a good idea. Discussion of the North Carolina system arose Monday during the state’s Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee meeting. The committee endorsed the bill, which still needs approval from the House, Senate and Governor.

Several legislators balked at privatization of liquor sales. State Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, expressed concern for the potential loss of jobs. The ABC commission employs a combined 2,870 full-time and part-time employees across the state.

Sunday sales

Other proposals received mixed reactions.

The state could make more money by allowing ABC stories to open on Sundays. North Carolina is one of only eight states that doesn’t allow liquor store sales on Sundays.

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Screen grab from the Report to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, Feb. 11, 2019. Joint Legislative Program report

“I think we need Sunday free for the Lord’s day,” said Rep. Pat Hurley, a Republican from Randolph County.

The Elon poll suggests many North Carolinians agree, as 52 percent of respondents said ABC stores should continue to be closed on Sunday.

Merging boards

The state could raise even more money if it reduces the number of ABC boards to one per county, according to Carol Shaw, a program evaluator for the state. Single-county ABC boards have more profitable operations than counties with multiple boards, she said.

Communities with more than 1,000 people can vote through a local referendum to create an ABC board. Some counties have multiple ABC boards with operational costs that leave their county with little profit.

ABCboardchart.png
Screen grab from the Report to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, Feb. 11, 2019. Joint Legislative Program report

For example, Robeson County has seven ABC boards that made only a 2 percent profit for the county in fiscal year 2016-2017. By contrast, similarly sized Wayne County has only one ABC board but made an 8 percent profit the same year.

Still, Hurley and others suggested that consolidating community ABC boards would be nullifying the will of voters who created the boards. Sen. Don Davis, a Democrat representing Greene and Pitt counties, and Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Republican from southwest North Carolina, asked multiple questions about board mergers. Edwards said he opposes forced mergers.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, is leading the push for reforming the state’s liquor laws. In a phone interview Tuesday, McGrady said he thinks privatization will be “a hard sell.” But he expects the legislature to approve at least one bill that modernizes the state’s liquor laws.

Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.

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