Tired of D.C. Partisanship? Here’s an Issue that Unites Most Americans

Note: This commentary was first published in Forbes and also appeared in The Chicago Tribune.

The political divide in Washington, D.C., may be wider than ever, but a recent alliance between a progressive news site and a free-market think tank in Pennsylvania shows Americans of all political stripes still agree on one important issue: Liquor sales is not the job of the government.

States across the country are moving to end their government monopolies on certain alcohol sales in growing numbers. Alabama, Ohio, Idaho, North Carolina, Washington, Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have all tried to end state control of liquor in recent years.

What’s propping up the Prohibition era’s dying remnants? Not the great partisan divide, but special interests-and the unions that run the state monopolies-that pour political funds into defending the status quo.

In Pennsylvania, two organizations often at odds ideologically-liberal Keystone Politics and free-market Commonwealth Foundation-co-sponsored a survey showing 66 percent of residents support liquor privatization. This support crossed party lines-even the majority of union members favored the effort.

Despite similar results in other states, the only recent liquor privatization push to cross the finish line was Washington state.

Washington passed privatization via referendum in 2011, by a 60-40 margin. But prior to the victory, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) pulled out all the stops to kill the proposal.

Using a full-court press of ads, mailers, and op-eds, the union spent millions on a message that ending the state monopoly-which was staffed almost exclusively by the union’s members-would have catastrophic consequences. They predicted skyrocketing underage drinking and shriveling tax receipts.

None of this fear-mongering worked; the union decisively lost at the ballot box. Yet the union responded by filing multiple lawsuits in state courts to stop the law from going into effect. The lawsuits failed-but the union continues to pine for state control even now.

Unions have similarly fought privatization efforts in Pennsylvania. The UFCW has again been the most outspoken opponent of proposals to give people what they want and end the government monopoly on liquor sales.

Union leaders have trotted out a series of myths and misinformation to make their case. They’ve bragged of spending more than $1 million on TV and radio ads this year alone. Most disturbingly, they produced a television ad showing a young girl laying flowers on her father’s grave-implying privatization will literally kill people.

Yet this claim, and others like it, has been refuted by the evidence. Under the current state monopoly, Pennsylvania consistently ranks poorly when compared to other states on drunk driving, alcohol-related fatalities, and binge drinking. In contrast, Washington has seen drunk driving accidents decrease following privatization.

Another popular union slogan-that privatization is a “picture of profit before people”-is equally untrue. Privatization could nearly triple the number of stores selling wine and liquor and allow thousands of grocery stores to expand and carry wine. The result would be thousands of additional jobs for Pennsylvanians looking for work.

The benefits would also accrue to the state’s economy. An analysis conducted for the state Office of the Budget estimated privatization would bring back $92 million from residents who, looking for lower  prices and wider selection, now illegally cross state lines to buy their booze. Ending the need for this modern-day bootlegging would boost the state’s economic growth and bolster tax revenues.

These stories are indicative of larger battles being waged across the nation. While the majority of Americans want liquor liberty and facts support the benefits of privatization, special interests will spend any amount of money and make any claim to spread partisan division and prevent common sense reform.

Despite the best efforts of insiders profiting off state control, the Right and the Left have come together on at least one issue: It’s time for last call on government-run alcohol.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation
(CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.