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Bill ends state-only liquor sales

Last modified: 2/28/2012 12:00:00 AM
The debate on whether liquor should be sold in New Hampshire's supermarkets and convenience stores is headed to the House floor.

Last week, the House commerce committee voted to rewrite House Bill 1251, which sought to end the state's monopoly on liquor sales, in favor of creating a study committee to research the issue. The bill now goes to the full House next month, where an amendment could be offered up to allow some 1,400 locations across the state to sell liquor instead of the 77 state-run stores.

'I'm not ruling anything out,' said Rep. John Hikel, the Goffstown Republican who introduced the bill. 'I'm thrilled that it has not been killed and can now be discussed by the full House, not a small group of people. . . . Small businesses and retailers are looking for another product that is legal to sell that people want to buy.'

While beer and wine can be sold privately in New Hampshire, the state liquor commission is opposed to allowing non-state sales of hard liquor. Joseph Mollica, chairman of the liquor commission, said today's liquor market features drinks targeted at a younger set, like cotton candy and cookie dough-flavored vodka.

'For some young person to get a hold of these is just that much more concerning to us at stores that we don't control,' Mollica said. 'Our stance has always been that the New Hampshire Liquor Commission brand belongs to the citizens of New Hampshire, and all the profits of that brand belong to the citizens.'

Hikel said the liquor commission is 'protecting their turf' out of concern that his bill would be 'the wedge in the door to eliminate the liquor commission entirely.'

'They've got a half-billion dollar industry that is state-run,' Hikel said. 'The liquor commission has their interest and the people have their interest, and I'm representing the people.'

Hikel said the locations and hours at the state-run stores make it hard for some residents to buy liquor. Mollica said hours of operation at state stores have increased 25 to 30 percent over the past five years, while the 77 locations leave New Hampshire 'very well-covered.' A new state store is being built this year with two more planned for next year, he said.

'The argument of convenience is not a valid argument as far as I'm concerned,' Mollica said.

A fiscal note attached to the original bill estimated it would increase state spending by $3.6 million over four years to pay for a dozen liquor inspectors who would be needed to handle the new licensing activity. Three years ago, a study by the New Hampshire Grocers Association calculated that opening up liquor sales would bring the state $3.1 million in up-front revenue when stores stocked up, followed by $11 million in annual state revenue.

Grocers Association President John Dumais is again pushing to legalize liquor sales at the stores he represents. Despite the committee amendment to simply study the issue, Dumas said he feels debate over the bill is 'very fluid at this point.'

'This is all just delaying everything by having the study committee come into play,' Dumais said. 'We would rather the (original) bill go through.'

Hikel's original bill would have required the state - which purchases liquor wholesale before selling it - to offer retailers a 10 to 20 percent discount so they could make a profit while keeping prices competitive with the state-run stores. The same discounts are already available to wine sellers.

Hikel's proposed liquor discount raised concerns about a reduction in state revenue, so he offered to change the bill to require stores to purchase liquor at the state's retail price.

Dumais's group is supportive of any attempt to expand liquor sales but, absent a wholesale discount for retailers, liquor prices at privately run stores would be higher than those at state-run stores and could potentially scare off out-of-state consumers, he said.

'We prefer to have the discount so we can have the same price as the liquor commission,' he said.

Hikel's revised proposal deadlocked the committee, which consists of 14 Republicans and four Democrats, on a 9-9 vote. Rep. Ronald Belanger of Salem, one of the Republicans on the committee who joined Democrats in opposition, is a retired police officer who oversaw drug enforcement in Chelsea, Mass.

'A lot of people complain that alcohol is a drug, and I wouldn't want to make it easier to access it in the state,' he said.

Rep. Jennifer Coffey, an Andover Republican, later proposed replacing the bill with a call for further study, which won approval 10-8.

Coffey was one of nine co-sponsors on the original bill and said she doesn't believe liquor should be treated any differently in New Hampshire than beer or wine. But after hearing testimony from both sides, she is split between her desire to give businesses more profit-making opportunities and her concerns about underage drinking.

'You've got the mom side of me, and you've got the side of me that wants to encourage businesses,' she said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)


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