AJOC EDITORIAL: At last call, bar lobby tries to cut off crafters
Chronicling political hypocrisy is typically no more difficult than shooting the idiomatic fish in a barrel.
And sometimes the fish jump in front of the bullets.
Such is the case with the 11th-hour hijacking of a bill to update Alaska’s alcoholic beverage regulations known as Title 4.
In the works for six years to develop points of consensus among stakeholders, Senate Bill 76 was sent to the House in a unanimous vote on April 30.
Less than a week later, a former bar owner, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, and a current bar owner, Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks, were aided in passing an amendment aimed at cutting a leg out from under popular craft tasting rooms by the reliably anti-business Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage and the reliably unremarkable Rep. Gary Knopp of Kenai.
A parade of bar owners testified on May 2 to the House Labor and Finance Committee with their complaints about the success of craft beer and spirit tasting rooms.
Despite having very limited hours to serve no more than 36 ounces of beer or 3 ounces of spirits to a single customer, and prohibited from offering any entertainment such as televisions, live music or even a pool table, these craft tasting rooms have apparently unlocked the secret to success: offering a product people want in an atmosphere they enjoy.
To hear the bar owners tell it, though, these crafty craft room owners are simply succeeding because they have the unfair advantage of not paying upward of $250,000 for a beverage dispensary license.
These sneaky entrepreneurs have apparently discovered a loophole in the system whereby they can pay $3,000 for a brewery license to sell those three beers per day per customer after investing a half-million dollars or more in tanks, equipment, ingredients, payroll, construction and transportation costs.
Were it not for the real world implications of such a transparent effort to pinch the profitability of another part of the industry he inhabits, Wool’s naked self-dealing would be laugh-out-loud comedy.
Wool, as you may recall, was the lead sponsor of the bill that green lit the operation of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in Alaska during the 2017 half of this legislative session.
At the time, and to this day, the one-time occupiers of a government-created and once-protected monopoly in the taxi business screamed to the high heavens to no avail that Uber and Lyft would enjoy unfair competitive advantages of less regulation while offering the same service and without the burden of purchasing the expensive and limited number of permits.
The arguments by the taxi lobby aren’t much different than those being raised by the bar industry, but in an ultimate irony they held more water then than they do now.
Unlike the craft tasting rooms versus bars, Uber and Lyft occupy the exact same space in the transportation industry as taxis do without the same cost of entry to the business.
That didn’t mean much to Wool, who cited long waits for taxis as a reason for his support for the bill. No doubt his bottom line has benefitted over the past year since as a customer or two at his bar may have been more willing to have that last cocktail with the knowledge a ride home was just a click and a few minutes away.
But now that his fellow industry travelers have an opening to stick it to competitors rather than pondering what may make a tasting room a more popular option for some customers and adjusting their business accordingly, Wool and Stutes are doing their bidding by attempting to slash crafters’ potential revenue by a third with no corresponding benefit to bar owners.
Wool actually called the one-third reduction a “compromise,” which begs the question: a compromise from what?
If customers are expressing a clear preference for local brews and spirits, perhaps the solution for bar owners would be to serve more of those options rather than further limiting the amounts available just feet from the tanks in a hamhanded attempt to force them into their businesses.
What the bar owners are arguing would be like souvenir shops in Homer complaining that Salty Dawg is cutting into their hoodie sales, or Fred Meyer whining that farmers’ markets hurt its produce department.
Hopefully House Finance will strip this amendment out of the bill, or it will get killed on the floor, but even if the bill is held until next session that would be a preferable alternative than to reward the worst of legislative tactics being plied by Stutes and Wool.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].