A contentious bill that would have changed alcohol rules in Alaska is dead. But the fight over the alcohol industry in the state is raging on. For the sake of business owners and patrons alike, the state needs to provide clarity — and it should do so without picking winners and losers.
Many of the rules governing alcohol-serving establishments are clearly in need of revision. For instance, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board decided earlier this year on an extremely stringent interpretation of a rule governing what Alaska distilleries are allowed to serve; namely, that they can sell only what they distill themselves. That ruling — which isn't yet in effect because the board didn't give proper notice of its meeting — forced distilleries to use the ungainly workaround of selling a shot of alcohol, handing over the nonalcoholic mixers to complete a cocktail, and telling customers to mix them together. A blind man could see this is a broken system — once he got done mixing the two halves of his drink together.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, has for years led the charge to reform the state's Title IV laws, which govern the affairs of alcohol businesses. Sen. Micciche's work on the issue has been commendable, but because of the entrenched interests of his colleagues and powerful interest groups, it has so far been for naught. Although many legislators — in all likelihood, a majority — wish to see the commonsense reforms Sen. Micciche has worked on come to fruition, some appear more interested in using his work as a vehicle to punish business foes.
This year, in the House, the culprit was the Labor and Commerce Committee. There, vice-chair Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, himself a bar owner, spent much of the session promising that action would be taken both on Micciche's Title IV overhaul and a standalone fix for the aforementioned cocktail issue. But when the bill did move, after significant public outcry, it was former bar operator Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who grafted the two issues together with an amendment that also effectively reduced the number of drinks that breweries and distilleries could serve per day to a customer from three to two. As Sen. Micciche said in a statement Thursday, it was "an unfair and self-serving amendment" that only served to inflame the issue and seal the bill's fate.
Bar owners and the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association have lobbied hard to protect the interests of bars, which they depict as being under siege by breweries and distilleries that play fast and loose with the rules and that directly undermine bars and restaurants. Their efforts have been successful at convincing the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office to govern the affairs of breweries and distilleries stringently, seeking bans on the serving of food, the presence of TVs or entertainment, and even "fun." One could be forgiven for mistaking the issue for the plot of the movie "Footloose," which would be funnier if the livelihoods of many local business owners weren't at stake.
Bars and CHARR would do well to examine the reasons why breweries and distilleries are thriving in Alaska instead of trying to punish them for their success. Alaska breweries and distilleries, by and large, are clean, well-lit, tastefully appointed places where the quality of drinks is high and patrons aren't over-served. The most successful have partnered with other local businesses and groups to promote their products and help stage events that make their communities better places.
As CHARR President Pete Hanson said in an op-ed last week, bars, breweries and distilleries are in this together. Alcohol-serving establishments of all stripes can and should coexist and support one another's businesses. All would benefit from common-sense updates to alcohol laws. If interest groups stopped trying to bully new entrants to the market, it just might happen.