February 2011 Editorial Winner

Our "archaic" liquor laws 

J. Leland Gourley, OKC Friday

Community leaders across Oklahoma are campaigning to get Oklahoma's liquor laws amended to allow at least wine and strong beer to be sold in grocery stores and possibly convenience stores.
Current law restricts the sale of these beverages to holders of liquor licenses that give them the legal right to sell alcoholic beverages. And no person, or other entity, who has a license can have more than one store. No chain stores.
Grocery stores can sell so-called "weak" beer because the State Supreme Court has ruled 3.2 beer is not "intoxicating."
We are for the change because it would be more convenient to the public, and it probably would increase tax income to the state (especially in sales to out of staters such as tourists and convention delegates).
And it would make us more like other states, instead of having industry recruiting prospects actually asking us why we are a "backward" state, unlike all the other states.
Beside that, I am a long-time board member of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, which has strongly endorsed changing the law. I voted for the Chamber to do that.
Having said all this, I still cringe when I hear our own residents referring to our liquor laws as "archaic" and "out of step."
I have heard folks wonder why we have such "backward" laws when everywhere else you can buy a bottle of wine when your wife asks you to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home.
Since I am maybe the only one left who was a member of the team that engineered the state's first legalization of liquor, it's my duty to refresh your state history. Only Mississippi was left as a dry state, along with us.
It started when I became a volunteer campaign leader for J. Howard Edmondson whom I had previously endorsed for Governor, and after his election I was his Chief of Staff. Howard promised the voters he would call for an election in the first 90 days of his term, to "end bootleg control of law enforcement."
Remember this, the most powerful political block in the state at this time was the "United Drys" Oklahoma had had two previous elections on legalizing liquor and the Drys soundly won both of them. No legal booze for us.
Every Sheriff and most County Attorneys in the state were in the pay of the local bootlegger, or people thought they were. Imagine, Law enforcers were working for criminals. The public may have thought the corruption was worse than Demon Rum but it was a lost cause, so let's go ahead and drink bootleg whisky.
Howard had also told the voters he would support a Merit System, so employees could give state service instead of political service. And he had promised to install Central Purchasing so vendors could get the business on the basis of lowest price and best performance, instead of the favor of its local Senator.
These programs, and other reforms, were passed or moving in that direction. And the State Senate, by a close margin, had approved a state referendum on repealing prohibition.
But it was the 90th day of the Edmondson administration and the House still had not passed the call for a vote. Our hand-picked Speaker Clint Livingston shook his head and said "I don't have the votes."
The Governor told me to rally the staff. I ordered them all to stay at work and do the best they could in persuading their home county House Member to vote for having an election.
The afternoon dragged on. It got dark and Clint still didn't' have the votes. The Governor was in the Speaker's office. At 10:30, Clint got a phone call in his office. He hung up and told the Governor, "I think we have the votes."
He went into the Chamber and the roll call started. The Referendum bill passed at 11:30 p.m on the 90th Day of the Edmondson Administration. (It cost at least three yes voters their jobs at the next general election.)
The voters also voted in favor of repeal at the Referendum election. This brought new taxes from a source that was never taxed before. And we were able to give school teachers their biggest raise in history up to that time.
I can tell you one thing. If we had proposed putting liquor in all the grocery stores, in that era, the bill would have been DOA.

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