Legislature has kept firm control of Md. liquor laws since Prohibition

March 16, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The Sons of Italy have a problem with their new lodge in Little Italy.

Facing a longtime ban on new liquor licenses in Southeast

Baltimore, the lodge fathers have had to trek to City Hall every week to get a one-day liquor license for their weekly dinners and monthly meetings.

To the rescue comes their senator, American Joe Miedusiewski, who introduced a bill in the General Assembly carving an exception in state law to give the lodge a permanent license.

The special-interest legislation is nothing unusual. Every year, the legislature turns away from loftier matters to consider dozens of local liquor control bills.

While saloons, restaurants and package stores pick up their licenses in their home counties, the rules are made in Annapolis.

With the legislature observing a "local courtesy" rule, in which legislators set the laws for their own cities and counties, lawmakers have become liquor czars back home.

Since Prohibition, the legislature has maintained firm control of liquor laws. The result is 366 arcane pages of law known as Article 2B of the Maryland Code, which govern the bizarre world of alcoholic beverages.

Many of the 81 liquor bills under consideration in Annapolis this year deal with the mundane -- store hours or license fees. But some legislative decisions have far-reaching implications for restaurants, bars, liquor stores and the communities around them.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, for example, would break tradition by allowing certain Montgomery liquor license holders to have more than one license. The tightly worded bill would apply only to license holders who want to put a restaurant in a new mall in the heart of Silver Spring.

The legislation -- dubbed a "redheaded Eskimo bill" because it applies to only one person -- would clear the way for a restaurant to open a second outlet in the mall. But it limits the number of multiple licenses to two. In other words, the two restaurants picked to go in the mall would hold monopolies.

Developers of the $63 million project say the liquor license exceptions are crucial to attracting well-known restaurants to the new shopping palace at a former Hecht's store in Silver Spring.

"Both of those liquor licenses will be very valuable. These will be the only restaurants in the mall," said Del. John A. Hurson, a Montgomery Democrat who voted against the bill in the Economic Matters Committee. "I don't think that's the way we should legislate."

Backers of the project aren't happy about the process, either.

"Maryland's the only state in the country where you have to go to the legislature to get a liquor license," grumbled one supporter.

Some state lawmakers don't like getting involved in local squabbles that would seem more appropriate for a County Council.

"It puts the committee in a very awkward position," said Del. Casper R. Taylor, chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. "We are clearly legislating for a specific narrow business interest."

It's not the first time.

In the cluttered world of Article 2B, there's the famous "Marriott exemption," which allowed hotel chains in Montgomery County to hold more than one license, noted Joseph A. Schwartz 3rd, lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association.

And none of those are to be confused with the murky bill that appeared one year allowing multiple licenses for an "urban redevelopment" zone in Baltimore.

"That turned out to be The Block," Mr. Schwartz said.

Legislators use liquor laws to try to cure social problems in their districts. Bills this year would ban new liquor licenses in downtown Baltimore, the greater Charles Village area, and the Hamilton neighborhood.

Another proposal has riled tavern owners -- mostly Korean -- who would be forced to close on Sundays. Community leaders say the owners have turned their saloons into liquor stores by selling on Sundays, when regular package stores are closed.

When Prohibition ended in the 1930s, the legislature assumed control over the complex world of alcoholic beverage regulation.

At the time, the legislature got in the practice of allowing legislators to set policy for their counties.

"That's why we're down here fooling with these g- - - - - - liquor bills that say this county should be dry, this one should be wet," said Mr. Taylor, an Allegany Democrat. "It's a real hodgepodge."

For several years, a three-man subcommittee headed by former Del. Willie Rush and known as The Three Muscatels controlled all the liquor bills that passed through Annapolis.

Now the bills go to a local county delegation and then to a standing committee in the House and Senate.

Although they grumble occasionally, legislators seem happy to maintain control over liquor policy in their own counties.

"Basically the legislature has zealously guarded their rights to control liquor laws," said Mr. Schwartz, the lobbyist for liquor interests. "It gave them power over liquor control. It's been deemed a type of patronage."

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