Six state legislators from Montgomery County want voters to decide next November whether private alcohol distributors should be allowed to compete against the county’s Department of Liquor Control.
The six will propose a bill to put a referendum on the November 2016 general election ballot asking voters whether private alcohol wholesalers should be allowed to sell directly to restaurants and alcohol retailers, and whether private retailers should be able to sell liquor under a newly created license.
District 16 Del. Bill Frick, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the proposal is similar to the one Comptroller Peter Franchot is now pitching except that it includes the referendum.
If approved via referendum, the county’s Department of Liquor Control would still be allowed to operate, but would face competition from private distributors and retailers. Restaurant operators and alcohol retailers could buy their products from private distributors, the county's Department of Liquor Control or both.
Montgomery County is thought to be the only jurisdiction in the country that has a government-run distribution system and that limits retail sales of hard liquor to county-run stores.
“This is an area where Montgomery County is a significant outlier,” said Frick, who lives in Bethesda. “None of the other counties in the state are doing it this way anymore. It’s something we hear about from constituents frequently. This is a reform that our constituents frequently ask us to make. It’s a reform that our restaurants and our retailers have asked us to make. So it seemed like time to make reforms, one way or another.”
The proposal is likely to draw opposition from the Montgomery County government, which has repeatedly defended the system and the roughly $34 million a year it brings in.
“If that $34 million goes away…that means a reduction of county services or an increase in taxes,” said Patrick Lacefield, a spokesperson for County Executive Ike Leggett, when asked earlier Thursday about Franchot’s similar proposal.
Frick said he favors his approach because it will allow time to figure out how to replace the revenue the county could lose as a result of letting private distributors in.
“Our bill gives us time to address the revenue concerns but we also can’t wait forever for the perfect time for the county budget,” Frick said.
The other co-sponsors of the bill are District 39 Del. Kirill Reznik, District 15 Dels. Kathleen Dumais and Aruna Miller, District 15 state Sen. Brian Feldman and District 39 state Sen. Nancy King.
The bill will be introduced as a “local bill,” since it applies only to Montgomery County but would require a vote from the full General Assembly. Traditionally, local bills make it to a full vote only if the majority of the county’s delegation of state legislators support it.
Frick said the bill was introduced now in part because of a resolution passed by the County Council in June that asks the General Assembly to privatize special order sales.
“The county was proposing one set of reforms that I don’t think most of my constituents would’ve supported,” Frick said. “It seems appropriate to give voters the chance to set the direction that they want to go in.”