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February 22. 2012 10:16PM

Hold your liquor: Grocery bill too much, too fast

New Hampshire should look carefully before it leaps into selling hard liquor in grocery stores. It is not simply a matter of increasing availability and therefore increasing revenue to the state.

To be sure, increasing revenue to the state is important, but just as with the question of expanded gambling, how the revenue is raised and the consequences must also be addressed.

The State Liquor Commission ought to be doing a better job of marketing and of exacting efficiencies in its operation. But it is often meddling politicians who have thwarted SLC efforts to do just that, insisting that barely-profitable or even money-losing stores be kept open at high cost in terms of labor and property rental.

Commissioner Mark Bodi pushed, a few years ago, for an expansion of so-called agency stores, where private operators would be given license to sell liquor. There are currently just three such stores, all in areas too far removed for the SLC operation to thrive.

A further expansion of such agency stores, perhaps coupled with some limited grocery sales in more populous areas, ought to be looked at and the effects measured before a wholesale turnover of liquor to big grocers is contemplated.

In a column published today, Charles Arlinghaus is all for the grocery-liquor bill. He makes some good points but he doesn't address a salient argument the SLC has raised in its opposition to a current House bill. That is the branding image that New Hampshire has built up for the last half-century, to the point that we are number one in the country in terms of liquor sales per capita.

That doesn't mean we are all drunken sots. Fully half of all state liquor sales go to out-of-staters. Why? Because our prices can't be beat. We have no sales tax. No big excise taxes. And because we are number one, the SLC can and does bargain hard with liquor makers for the best prices.

Allowing grocers to sell liquor at a marked up price may be convenient, but it may also play havoc with that branding advantage.

We aren't as concerned as some with the social costs of expanded liquor sales but those who worry should be allowed to make their case.

Bottom line: The issues here ought to be studied and measured before we mess with success.


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