Legislators ponder minimum drinking rule

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A number of comedy clubs and music venues have a policy that you must buy a couple of drinks while enjoying the venue’s conviviality. This ubiquitous policy is called the “two drink minimum.”

Not to be outdone, the state of Idaho is considering a 20-drink minimum, and the Otter administration hopes lawmakers will raise their glasses in celebration of the concept. Otter’s Idaho State Police (ISP) is promoting a bill that would require holders of liquor licenses to serve no fewer than 20 drinks per week. If that’s not enough, the state police would also require liquor licensees to be open no fewer than 20 hours a week.

It’s the second time the Otter administration has proposed such a policy; it tried to do so last year as an agency regulation, but lawmakers wouldn’t swallow. This time, ISP has produced legislation — House Bill 14 — which is waiting to be served in the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.

The argument for the legislation goes like this: Idaho limits the number of available liquor licenses, which has caused liquor licenses to be extraordinarily valuable, often selling for as much as six figures. The wait to get a liquor license can last years. The bill is intended to prevent a person from holding a license but not using it. It’s a strange policy that might be analogous to the state limiting the number of law licenses available in Idaho and, in order to continue as a licensed attorney, you have to see at least 20 clients a week.

Telling bars and restaurants when to operate and how many drinks to serve is merely the latest chapter in the state’s strange and tortured relationship with alcohol, a reality for many states following the Prohibition era. The state Constitution contains a requirement that the Legislature promote “temperance and morality.” Liquor stores in Idaho are owned and operated by the state. The state purchases liquor that fills the shelves of the store. The people behind the counter at the liquor store are state employees.

And though Idaho is a “liquor control” state, there’s no limit as to how much liquor you can buy. There’s a reason for that: The revenue generated from the sale of booze is an important government revenue stream. Liquor sales are up 30 percent from 2011, and net income is up 34 percent. In the last fiscal year, more than $186 million in alcohol sales produced a net income of $65 million to the state.

Moreover, a few years ago, Idaho legislators approved funding for the state to develop its own website to teach people how to plan awesomely awesome boozy parties featuring memorable mixed drinks. It is intellectually dishonest to claim the state is interested in liquor control when it creates a website to help customers party hardy.

The state can’t be invested in liquor control and tell bars and restaurants that they must sell at least 20 drinks a week, because those are contradictory objectives. Someday, hopefully soon, lawmakers will realize they should not use liquor licenses as a means to control drinking. And given Idaho’s propensity for contradictions, the realization will probably occur as legislators slam down a few drinks at their favorite Boise bar.

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