Is reform of liquor rules already in trouble?

Gov. Rick Snyder and his team are eying Michigan's antiquated liquor control regulations. The governor appointed an advisory panel to study streamlining regulations to make them more business-friendly. He appointed a new head of the Liquor Control Commission from the Michigan Restaurant Association -- a business advocacy group.

The pieces are moving into place for a big-time revamp of liquor regulations that would bring a smile only to the face of Rube Goldberg's mother.

Or are they?

Late last month, Snyder's advisory panel met outside of public view. The better to encourage a frank exchange of ideas, we are told.

This week, Crain's Detroit published an interview with new commission head Andy Deloney.

Deloney was properly asked: "Do you see limits being lifted on the number of liquor licenses available in each community?"

This quota system is a relic of the Prohibition era, and an idea so counterproductive that the Legislature has gone to the trouble to write special provisions to create loopholes in it so cities can get more licenses to spur nightlife and economic growth.

But Deloney didn't dismiss the quota system. He responded:

"Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, small-business owners have played by the rules set up by the Michigan Legislature, as far as the availability of licenses. Because the Legislature ... decided that licenses should be subject to a quota, in effect they gave quota liquor licenses monetary value.

"So you have thousands of licensees who have played by these rules and in many cases ... have paid huge sums of money to get a license. You'd essentially be saying to them, if we increased the number of licenses available in their community, we'd be devaluing their asset.

"But the problem is, as the economy gets better, there is going to be more demand for liquor licenses. And at some point we are going to be running out of the number of licenses that are available, and something has to be done about that.

"Do I know what the answer is today? No. But the fact of the matter is, it is something that we are going to have to be discussing and considering."

That screeching sound you hear is the brakes being applied to the Reform Express.

What Deloney and, by extension, Snyder are saying is that the choices of Michigan consumers may have to be limited to protect the business investments of the liquor retailing community. Don't expect to see that argument plastered on a campaign billboard anywhere soon.

To be clear, I sympathize with the retailers who have had to pay through the nose to obtain licenses to dispense a legal product over the years. The state has not treated them, or consumers, fairly. But you won't create fairness by pouring a double dose of mistreatment.

To be equally clear, there are some in Michigan who aren't eager to give consumers more choices or lower prices. The current system suits them quite well.

They have a voice in Lansing via the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. You won't hear your state rep or senator talk much about this group when he or she is working the civic groups back in the district, but rest assured that every legislator knows the group quite well.

According to figures from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the wholesalers PAC handed out $884,000 in contributions in the 2010 state election cycle, placing it 11th overall among all PACs. In the 2008 election cycle, it handed out just under $810,000. The PAC gives to Democrats and Republicans alike, either directly to indidivual lawmakers or via larger contributions to party PACs.

As for the voice for Michigan consumers? Well, we will keep an eye out.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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