Thursday, April 3, 2008

Victory for Beer -- But What's the Rest of the Story?

On Tuesday, residents of Columbia, S.C., voted to allow Sunday beer and wine retail sales -- a small but significant step away from the antiquated and unabashedly religiously inspired "blue laws" that still hold sway over many aspects of life in South Carolina and elsewhere.

Columbians (or, I should say, the small percentage who showed up to the polls) approved the ballot initiative by a roughly 7-3 margin -- surprisingly comfortable for a state whose legislators have expressed recent interest in outlawing lap dances and creating an extra tax on nudie magazines, the latter ostensibly to help offset the cost of supervising the sex offenders those publications supposedly create.

But while the vote means city residents will no longer have to plan ahead to avoid NFL-gameday or backyard-barbecue droughts, it also needs to place a focus on the larger issue of how South Carolina has chosen to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol within its borders.

First, we should note that in the wake of Tuesday's vote, seven-day-a-week liquor sales remain strictly off limits. This shouldn't necessarily surprise us. South Carolina has a history of treating hard alcohol differently -- booze retailers have to erect physical walls between their liquor and beer/wine departments, and it was only in 2005 that voters kicked aside the state's odd law requiring all on-premise liquor to be poured from airplane-style mini bottles. Yet you don't have to be a chemist (or maybe you do...) to realize that ethanol is ethanol, and the notion that a person can somehow get more sodden off two shots of liquor than he can from a case of Bud Light is, well, all wet.

Given that the heavy hand of South Carolina government enjoys keeping booze firmly in its grasp, how did Columbians even get the opportunity to have their say in the first place? What we find is, at the end of the day, morality only holds partial sway in the Palmetto State. It's that other "M" word that really reigns supreme: money.

It so happens tourism is among South Carolina's major industries. The state is mighty proud of its popular beach destinations, which attract countless visitors and dollars from all along the eastern seaboard. And it also happens that, over the years, those out-of-towners have had some beefs with coastal bar, restaurant and hotel owners who found themselves having to break the news of South Carolina's unfortunate alcohol laws.

The state was in an uncomfortable position: how to honor our Puritanical moral piety while also indulging those thirsty beachgoers? The solution (if you want to call it that) was to allow -- nay, require -- local jurisdictions to hold elections in order to overturn Sunday sales restrictions. Not surprisingly, such votes were held years ago up and down the South Carolina coast well before Columbia got the idea.

Coastal counties also dominate the list of those that have voted to allow Sunday sales of alcohol in bars and restaurants. Lexington and Richland (home of Columbia) are the only two landlocked counties that have done the same. In total, only six of South Carolina's 46 counties have greenlighted on-premise drinking seven days a week. Meanwhile, 15 municipalities are on board, even if their county is not (as is the case with Greenville).

Questions fly into mind rapidly and without obvious, consoling answers: What is the grave public risk stemming from Sunday retail sales that exists in Florence County but not in Charleston County? Why have fewer towns (11) allowed off-premise sales than on-premise sales? Has that anything to do with the larger fees for on-premise Sunday permits versus retail permits? How is it a better idea to let Lexington County residents drive to a bar on Sunday and get loaded than it is for them to drive to the store and get sauced in the privacy -- and safety -- of their own home?

For the state lawmakers who engineered such let-the-locals-decide "compromises," it amounts to simple political cowardice in letting one backward-thinking county or town restrict the activities of its inhabitants when citizens elsewhere have rejected such dogmatic governance as being morally flimsy and fiscally unwise. If anything, should not citizens of each and every jurisdiction be required to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops in order to impose arbitrary and unreasonable restrictions on behaviors and liberties, not in order to remove them?

The march of progress can sometimes feel like more of a crawl, especially where traditions of moral high-handedness have deep roots in culture and government. Let's hope Columbians and all South Carolinians continue to demand, with increasing fervor, that their leaders bring the state's alcohol policies into the 21st century. A win in this fight would be nothing less than a victory for common sense itself.

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