I Hate the Liquor Licensing Process

I have liquor licenses in about six different states, and like sales taxes, the process varies a lot by state.  But one universal impression I have is that the whole liquor licensing process has long ago ceased to serve its original purpose and has instead become either become captive to rent-seekers or has become a bureaucratic jobs program or both.  Al Capone died more than half a century ago.  And while one might argue there is some government interest in making sure minors don't buy the product and similar rules are followed, the liquor licensing process is orders of magnitude more complex and onerous than, say, getting a license to sell cigarettes or to prepare foods on site, both of which have similar features.

The liquor licensing process in most states was crafted in the 1930s, with the end of prohibition.  At that time, the primary concern was to keep out organized crime interests who had run the liquor business during prohibition.  So the process includes FBI background checks, as well as minute disclosure of every single person who has ever loaned you money, so they can be checked out to make sure you are in no way beholden to anyone who is a bad guy in the FBI computers.  The licenses take months to obtain (including a fingerprinting process) and cost thousands of dollars a year, presumably to offset the bureaucracy required to review all the applications.  Here in Arizona, minuscule errors, such as abbreviating "Boulevard" in an address to "Blvd" can cause the application to be rejected and have to be resubmitted.  Believe me, I know.

Worse than the ridiculous jobs-program-and-mindless-bureaucracy-fighting-a-threat-that-no-longer-exists problem is the way liquor licenses are now used in many locales for rent-seeking.  The worst offenders are states that purposefully artificially limit the number of liquor licenses.  This is quite obviously an incumbent protection program, protecting current liquor businesses from new competition.  California is one such state.  Even after I had purchased an existing license for a ridiculous amount of money ($5000 I think), I still had to make my case to the local county planning board who had final approval as to whether they would allow me a license into the county.  I asked them why this was necessary, and they were very up front about it (the following is paraphrased but accurate):

If we issue too many licenses, then it would be hard for you to make money.  We are really just helping you.

Sorry, but I don't need help.  I am willing to take the risk.  And does anyone really think that Shasta County California is looking after me, an out-of-state business just entering the area?  Of course not.  What they are really saying is "let us decide if all our buddies here in the county who we play golf with and who donate to our campaigns are OK with you competing with them."

In fact, this is exactly what happens in Lake Havasu City, AZ.  Though Arizona is not a state that limits liquor licenses, Lake Havasu required some kind of local board meeting to approve our license in that city.  The stated reason was that they wanted to make sure the new liquor business would not bring down the image of the city.  Which is hilarious, for anyone who has been to Lake Havasu City, particularly in spring break.  In fact, I am pretty sure it was an excuse for all the local interests to decide if they could tolerate another competitor or not.

All this comes to mind after I read this article by Radley Balko.  It is a good example of what can happen to you if your business depends on a government license and the local rent-seekers decide that your business needs to go.  A very brief excerpt:

I'll get into the
harassment, entrapment, and defamation Mr. Ruttenberg has endured in a
bit. For the moment, I'd like to focus on possible reasons for the
harassment. Why has this been going on for several years? I think there
are a few minor motivating factors. For one, I think there is,
unfortunately, some antisemitism at play. There's also a strange
rivalry Mr. Ruttenberg had with a Manassas Park police officer over a
girl. And I think part of this may be driven by city officials who for
whatever reason simply began to harbor a grudge against Ruttenberg.
Remember Milton Friedman's old axiom: Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.

But I think something else is going on, here. And Black Velvet Bruce
Li has hit it. I believe there is some very strong circumstantial
evidence suggesting that Mr. Ruttenberg's bar was targeted by the city
of Manassas Park because the city had its eye on the property as a
possible site for an off-track betting facility for the Colonial Downs
horse racing track in New Kent County, Virgina.

Update:  I guess this is the day to blog about outdated 1930's liquor legislation.

When the Legislature wrote the first alcohol laws after
Prohibition was repealed in 1933, California defined what a beer is and
what wine is. The definition was simple"”anything added to beer or wine
renders it something else. Sometime thereafter beer and wine producers
started adding things such as preservatives, flavor enhancers and other
things. So narrowly reading the law there is NO such product as either
beer or wine sold in California today. Now common sense and alcohol
regulators know that is not true and so for years have ignored this
narrow interpretation.

Last week [on December 13] a bare
majority of the Board of Equalization voted for the narrow
interpretation of the law, and have begun the process to tax all
alcohols with any additives as distilled spirits. This will increase
the taxes charged on beers, wines, flavored malt beverages, and
flavored beers to the level on hard liquor.

The dated California
law defines beer as having no additives whatsoever. No beer that I know
of"” except perhaps some home brews"”meets this definition.

  • Joel

    Here's a story about the nastiness involved in getting a liquor license in Boston