Fight over shift of alcohol board centers on underage drinking

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- Alaska breweries, bars and liquor stores are squaring off against police chiefs, recovering alcoholics and treatment advocates over regulation of the alcohol industry.

A proposal before the Legislature would move the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board from one state agency to another.

House Bill 125 sounds simple enough. The board would switch from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development with no new restrictions on its activities and only a small clarification of its powers.

But as in most matters involving the liquor industry, the bill is hugely controversial. Supporters of House Bill 125, which was introduced last year, say the ABC Board is consumed by its police role and an enforcement mentality that fails to cultivate the industry's commercial value for Alaska.

Opponents say the change in oversight from public safety to commerce would weaken the ABC board and prove dangerous in a state where alcohol abuse causes so much dysfunction. Much of the debate is framed around efforts to stop underage Alaskans from buying booze.

A standing-room only crowd of more than 40 people packed the House Finance Committee hearing room Monday afternoon to testify and monitor debate over House Bill 125. Liquor industry lobbyists stood in the back of the room. Darwin Biwer, owner of the downtown Anchorage bar Darwin's Theory, was there. So were many who support strict control of the industry.

The ABC board regulates the sale, possession and manufacture of alcohol in Alaska. Its staff can investigate criminal and civil cases, such as accusations of selling alcohol to a minor or employing bartenders who haven't completed required alcohol awareness training.

State Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, is carrying the bill as chairman of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee. The committee introduced the measure last year after a state audit found some operational problems within the agency. A subcommittee composed of Hawker, state Rep. Bill Stoltze of Chugiak and Sens. Kevin Meyer of Anchorage and Linda Menard of Wasilla -- all Republicans -- held hearings and heard liquor industry concerns.

Hawker framed the issue as a public policy call that relates to the very purpose of the ABC Board.

"Is the ABC Board first and foremost a cop or is it first and foremost a regulator of commerce?" Hawker asked the Finance Committee. Hawker's view: commerce.

Dale Fox, the longtime chief executive of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, the advocacy group known as CHARR, told the Finance Committee that the industry agrees that underage drinking is a big problem, and wants to tackle it too. But the industry isn't the main culprit, he said. Kids more often get alcohol from their parents' liquor cabinets, friends, older relatives or even off the Internet, he insisted.

"We're all on the same side when it comes to underage drinking," Fox said.

Yet the ABC Board's staff is relentless in going after industry, he said. Clerks at one package store turned down underage buyers some 50 times in attempted stings -- "compliance checks," in ABC Board lingo. "And finally one of their clerks was asleep at the switch" and sold to someone under 21, Fox said.

At the private Fraternal Order of Eagles club in Peters Creek, two adult undercover agents pushed and pushed until they got a member to buy them drinks, Fox said. While the sale was a violation of state law because the club's license only allows members to be served, it only happened because the agents wouldn't let up, Fox said.

CHARR supports limited enforcement and a more "industry friendly," cooperative approach by the ABC Board, which would better be done through the Commerce Department, he said.

Others say the job is being done well and that if anything, the ABC Board should be more vigilant, not more friendly.

The Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the bill, said Brad Johnson, deputy Fairbanks police chief. The current system works well and is grounded in good communication between the board and local law enforcement, he said.

It's actually harder for underage Alaskans to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products than to buy alcohol, Jeff Jessee, chief executive officer of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, told the Finance Committee.

In the last budget year, about 12 percent of the attempts by underage decoys to purchase alcohol led to sales, according to the ABC Board. While that rate has dropped in recent years, fewer than 8 percent of the attempts to buy tobacco resulted in sales, Jessee told the committee.

Some complaints about the ABC Board are dated, Jessee said. The board director for the last three years, Shirley Gifford, has been roundly praised for improving its practices and formalizing policies, he noted.

The board recently surveyed bars and liquor stores and found that most of those who responded were satisfied with the board staff's knowledge and resolution of issues.

If the proposed change wasn't going to weaken enforcement, the industry wouldn't be pushing so hard, Jessee said.

"Clearly, the industry has invested a lot in making this happen," he said.

Patrick Hayes, chair of a group that advocates for addicts who have been through treatment, told legislators that his group is concerned that the oversight on industry would weaken if the board moves to the Commerce Department.

The Finance Committee didn't decide what to do Monday. It will continue to take testimony when it hears the bill again, Stoltze said. That's not yet scheduled.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 1-907- 500-7388.

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