Margaritaville

The news these days is flush with accounts of the proposed sale of Virginia’s post-prohibition monopoly of ABC stores. For generations, the Commonwealth has controlled liquor by the bottle through a state-based network of about 300 stores that do no advertising, rarely display signage, and still wrap bottles in a trademark brown paper bag. Governor Bob McDonnell wants to change that.

My friend Sen. John Chichester used to tell me that Virginia’s hold on ABC stores resulted in the state drinking in both tax and profit. In other words, liquor stores are another example of a well run government program, this time as an actual business. And a very profitable one at that! And those general fund dollars have been put to excellent use over the years, particularly in the area of mental health. Though the irony of liquor sales funding mental health programs is not lost.

While it is not yet clear what cocktail of agreements Gov. McDonnell may serve up at his special session of the General Assembly later this year, what is clear is that he will need to show how privatizing ABC stores will gin up new dollars for transportation, a perennial campaign issue for all rising-star politicians in the state. Suggested windfall numbers are in the hundreds of millions of dollars but no one can agree on how to actually get to those numbers.

And he will also need to show how the benefits of privatization outweigh the broad social costs. If privatization comes to Virginia it will mean many more drink stands than we have right now. An early estimate puts the number as high as 800. And it is unlikely they will be located next to the neighborhood Nordstrom. More likely you’ll find the new stores near the payday lenders. As another friend recently said to me: in your neighborhood they sell “spirits,” in mine, they sell “liquor.”

We speak a great deal about moral budgeting at the Virginia Interfaith Center. We know that budgets speak to our values as a society. The jury is out as to how moral it is to take dollars from alcohol sales and put them toward substance abuse programs. But one thing is clear, many of the moral voices that one would expect to hear from, the ones that tell the rest of us how we should be acting, and what our kids should be praying about and where they should be allowed to do it, sure are quiet about Gov. McDonnell’s ABC privatization ideas. Maybe the buzz from last November hasn’t worn off yet.

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