Good liquor gonna carry me down

Politics + Other Mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  May 21, 2014

I thought for sure this would be the year I’d finally stop traveling to New Hampshire to buy almost all my booze.

It appears I was wrong.

In 2013, Gerry Reid, then the director of the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations (motto: If We Controlled Pot And Prostitution, We’d Have It All), announced that when the state’s new 10-year wholesale liquor contract took effect on July 1, 2014, the prices of 500 “high-traffic spirits” would be reduced to roughly what those products cost in the Granite State.

No more need for long road trips south to replenish supplies.

No more badgering friends and acquaintances heading north to stop and pick up a few bottles.

And best of all, no more paying exorbitant prices at Maine agency stores when the liquor cabinet was empty and the demand for cocktails was immediate.

Except none of that is going to happen.

Reid retired in February, and with him seemingly went the idea of matching New Hampshire’s bargain prices. Instead, the bureau will be pursuing a policy of occasionally discounting a few high-volume items, while leaving the majority of its inventory ticketed well above that of the competition in the state next door.

According to Tim Poulin, who until this week was the bureau’s acting director, come July and August, “we’ll see the most aggressive prices we’ve had in years.”

Aggressive? Is this going to be one of those promotions where you better buy some hooch in Maine or you’ll get punched out?

Poulin said the new strategy calls for sometimes matching or coming close to New Hampshire’s regular prices on big sellers. But he admitted Maine wouldn’t even attempt to undersell the competition’s famous discounts. “We can’t compete with them on specials,” Poulin said. “We’d be losing too much money.”

OK, let’s talk about losing money. A couple of years ago, New Hampshire did a study of credit card sales, which showed that 8 percent of its liquor revenue came from Maine. Poulin called that figure “a little low,” because it doesn’t take into account cash transactions. He estimated the real number was more like 10 percent or around $35 million a year. As anyone familiar with the bar and restaurant industry will tell you, that figure is also probably on the light side, since a sizeable portion of Maine’s watering holes ignores state law and buys a significant amount of its booze on the far side of the Piscataqua River. Our actual lost business is likely well above $50 million annually.

Maine could alleviate a lot of that loss very simply. It could change its statutes to end state control of retail prices, and let agency stores (and competition among them) dictate how much liquor would sell for. But legislators refuse to even consider that idea, because it might result in higher prices in remote, rural areas and better deals in more populated regions and border towns.

In other words, alcohol would be subject to the same market forces as groceries, hardware, heating fuels, and pharmaceuticals, all of which somehow manage to survive the perils of our economy without government price controls.

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