Those regulation-loving N.C. Republicans

The Observer editorial board

The “Craft Freedom” movement, led in part by the owners of Charlotte’s Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, fell to a more powerful force in N.C. politics.
The “Craft Freedom” movement, led in part by the owners of Charlotte’s Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, fell to a more powerful force in N.C. politics. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

If there ever were a bill that should have sailed through a conservative legislature, it was North Carolina’s House Bill 500.

The bill, an omnibus piece of legislation dealing with alcohol beverage control reforms, eliminated a rule that forces growing craft brewers to turn over their distribution operations to wholesalers. The rule, which applies to brewers that produce more than 25,000 barrels a year, serves no other purpose than to enrich those wholesalers and protect beer conglomerates from craft beer competition.

Theoretically, at least, HB 500 should have been a slam dunk for Republicans. It would have killed an unnecessary regulation (which conservatives loathe), and it would’ve gotten the government out of picking business winners (which conservatives at least say they loathe.)

But last week, lawmakers dropped the language in HB 500 that would have raised the self-distribution limit for craft brewers. The “beer bill,” as it was known, is no more, and its supporters just got a lesson in something that’s as powerful as conservatism in N.C. politics – money.

The beer bill was supported by some prominent N.C. conservative groups, but it was opposed by wholesalers, who were backed by the N.C. Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. Together, that opposition has given $1.5 million in donations between 2013 and 2016 to legislative campaigns and political parties, according to an analysis from government watchdog Democracy NC.

So last week, lawmakers were all ears when wholesalers trotted out two astoundingly weak arguments for keeping the rules. First, they noted that some small brewers were having issues accounting for their stock and paying taxes – a not-so-uncommon issue for new businesses but one that doesn’t require the help of distributors. Also, they complained that craft brewers would be able to break distribution contracts, neglecting to emphasize that those contracts were forced upon brewers.

What alcohol wholesalers didn’t mention is that other industries in North Carolina don’t require a producer of a product to use a distributor, whether that producer wants to or not. Because that’s not how a free market is supposed to work.

But the principles Republicans campaign on have a funny way of disappearing by the time they start casting votes in Raleigh. Another example: N.C. lawmakers also are poised to pass HB 467, which would limit lawsuits that North Carolinians can file against hog farms. The bill is essentially a regulation against citizens who would be denied the right to have a court, not the legislature, decide if they have a legitimate grievance against a business neighbor.

It’s not hard to find other examples, each with a common thread: Regulation-hating Republicans don’t mind regulating the lives of people – and even some businesses – so long as there’s a benefit to big businesses, especially those who might contribute to campaigns.

Certainly, Republicans aren’t the only lawmakers who like campaign dollars, but they are the ones who so frequently bow to corporate interests. Craft brewers – and their free-market supporters – are just the latest to understand how bitter that tastes.