Grapes of wrath

Our view: Thwarting public opinion over wine law would be serious mistake

February 09, 2010

In this volatile political atmosphere, elected officials who act contrary to the views of voters are likely to find the electorate unforgiving this November. It is a powerful argument that Republicans have been using to great effect in Washington: Polls matter.

Amazingly, Sen. Joan Carter Conway is pursuing precisely that folly with her recent disclosure that she opposes legislation to allow Marylanders to have wine shipped directly to their homes. A majority of the public clearly favors the law, and more than half the members of the General Assembly have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

But Senator Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, is doing far more than opposing the bill; she's taken the unusual step of threatening not to allow the legislation to come up for a committee vote at all.

Such a desk-drawer veto would not only thwart the legislative process (six of nine committee members are co-sponsors) but would demonstrate a political hubris with which Democrats ought not be comfortable.

The Baltimore senator has said her chief concern is that somehow the proposal would facilitate under-age drinking. She has also suggested that it might be difficult for the state to collect appropriate excise and sales taxes from out-of-state wineries. But neither claim holds much water, let alone wine. Shipping wine is legal in more than two-thirds of states, where neither concern has materialized as a serious problem.

The underage drinking claim is particularly nonsensical. Under the proposal, United Parcel Service and FedEx are the only two potential shippers, and both have proven themselves reliable in states where wine shipment is permitted. Under the law, their drivers must check photo ID of wine recipients to make sure they are 21 years old -- just as any clerk or waitress in a liquor store, bar or restaurant must do.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that minors find it far easier to ask an older friend or relative to buy alcohol for them -- and it's not usually the kind of boutique wine that ends up bubble-wrapped in shipping boxes. In Maryland, there are approximately 6,300 liquor stores, bars and restaurants where a straw purchase can take place. Why would anyone wait a week for a shipment for which they'd need an adult to sign?

Taxes have not proven to be a serious obstacle in other states either. Wineries are only too pleased to pay taxes to the state where a bottle is delivered instead of where it was produced. It's all the same to them -- even more so in Maryland's case, given that the state hasn't raised taxes on wine since the 1970s.

Certainly, there are more pressing issues before the state legislature this year than making it possible for average people to have wine shipped to them. The recession, falling state and local tax revenues and projected budget deficits have left many in Annapolis with important, albeit unpopular, choices to make.

But few issues better underscore why voters are suspicious of government in Maryland these days: The heavy influence of the liquor lobby, the coziness of regulators with the alcohol industry (Senator Conway's spouse is a longtime Baltimore liquor inspector), and the willingness of leaders to ignore the public's wishes.

Legalizing direct shipment is good for consumers and good for Maryland's wine industry. Such obvious benefits easily trump the objections of self-interested liquor wholesalers, retailers and even regulators who seek to preserve Maryland's antiquated liquor laws. Woe to any politician who thinks the voters won't notice such glaring arrogance.

Readers respond

I live in Mount Washington and don't understand why I can't join a wine-of-the-month club but my brother, who lives in Fairfax, Va., can. Thanks for letting me know it's the fault of my own state senator.

Real Truf

Ludicrous! Where is this woman living? Oh, yeah, she represents arguably the drug/murder capital of the country. No wonder she wants to focus on something else.

Bar

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