Sunday Beer Sales and Bad Public Policy


300_595151In their infinite wisdom, our board of supervisors has decided the way out of our county’s financial squeeze (we’re the 2nd poorest county in Virginia) is to allow beer and wine sales on Sundays.  One supervisor commented tonight, “This isn’t about religion, it’s about economics.”

I would agree.  I don’t think Christians can make a credible case any longer for Sunday blue laws.  Blue laws restrict goods that may be bought and sold on Sundays here in Virginia, as they do in many states, although fewer now than in past years.

Baptists say we believe in the separation of church and state, and if we do, we should not look to the state — or county — to protect Sundays.   Our blue laws don’t protect the Jewish sabbath, or the Seventh-Day Adventist day of worship, so why should Christians get special treatment from the government, local or otherwise?  No, I don’t think we can make a civil case for keeping blue laws.

But we can make an economic case.  The assumption our supervisors are making is that Sunday sales of beer and wine will generate more tax revenue for our struggling county.  However, let’s take a closer look at this assumption:

1.  The supervisors don’t really know how much revenue this will generate.  No economic impact study has been done, probably because the county can’t afford it.

2.  No one has considered the economic cost of allowing beer and wine sales on Sunday.  Adding one more day per week increases the opportunity to buy beer and wine by more than 15%.  Will our county supervisors also increase the sheriff’s department budget by 15% to put more deputies in patrol cars on Sundays?  Will the supervisors increase the budgets of local rescue squads and fire departments who respond to car wrecks?  Do we know what percentage of car accidents, domestic abuse cases, and child abuse cases involve alcohol?  And, are we going to increase the budgets of all those agencies by 15% to handle the potential increase?

3.  The state of Virginia previously did not allow alcohol sales on election day, presumably so that our citizens can make clear-headed voting decisions.  Apparently that’s changed now.  However, the current law does not allow alcohol sales statewide on Sundays (except urban municipalities over 100,000, but only after 1 PM), Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Why not establish one day a week, Sunday or not, to stop alcohol sales just to give us all a breather from the problems associated with alcohol?  We regulate who can purchase alcohol, where it can be sold, in what types of containers and quantities, and the tax on alcohol sales.  Why not regulate the days on which it is sold on a regular basis?

4.  Finally, our county is not a destination for tourists or those seeking recreation.  The only people needing to buy alcohol on Sundays are most likely the ones who have problems with it in the first place.  Just like state lotteries, alcohol sales are geared to those who can least afford it.  Our county already has a higher than average rate of substance abuse, and a long culture of alcohol-related crime, including bootlegging.

I agree with our esteemed county supervisor — this isn’t about religion.  It is about economics.  I just wish our supervisors would do their homework before trying to buffalo us with their new-found concern for “keeping our shopping dollars in Pittsylvania county.”

Lifting the ban on Sunday beer and wine sales without assessing the impact is bad public policy, economic or otherwise.  I for one plan to oppose their efforts.  What do you think?

18 thoughts on “Sunday Beer Sales and Bad Public Policy”

  1. to be frank, this is really only an issue in the US, and probably only in the southern states of the US.

    Drinking beer is not against the bible, and neither do we Baptists hold that Sunday is some legalistic day when we cant buy anything either.

    So logically, how can we protest this?
    Many people now go to church on Saturday nights, should we ban the selling of alcohol on Saturday nights as well?

    “The only people needing to buy alcohol on Sundays are most likely the ones who have problems with it in the first place”

    thats simply not true. What about the pastor who is having unexpected visitors back to his house for lunch after church and who wants to pick up a nice bottle of red to go with the meal?

  2. Mark, you are correct — this is uniquely a southern United States issue. I agree with you that we cannot make a civic case for banning sales of beer and wine on Sundays. Our personal religious conviction in this regard should not be pressed upon other members of the public who do not share our views of Sunday as a day (at least morning) devoted to worship.

    However, my argument is that adding 15% more capacity (one day) for alcohol purchases has economic impacts that county supervisors have not considered carefully. Theirs is a knee-jerk reaction to solve an economic problem without careful study.

    Thanks for your comments. Are there issues that you deal with in Australia that pit church against popular culture? In other words, what are you equivalent issues to our Sunday blue laws?
    Might be interesting to hear from other countries as well. -Chuck

  3. You make some wonderful points about this, and I whole-heartedly agree that the people who are buying alcohol on Sundays will more than likely be the ones who have a problem with it, but my concern goes back a little further. I’m curious to know if we can try to legislate morality. I know this is an old, more than likely burnt out question, but how can we, through legislation try to superimpose our own convictions onto people who don’t have the same motivation (Jesus) as we do?

    I’m also curious about dry counties in the South. I had never heard of one until one of my buddies moved to Arkansas and was astounded that the gas station near the county line was busy simply because of all the people who have to drive there to buy beer. The dry county rule accomplishes nothing more than making people drive further to find alcohol, so isn’t the case for blue laws on Sunday similar? If I were in that boat, I imagine that I would just stock up on Saturday!

    Anyways, thanks for writing about this; our faith has some interesting questions when the rubber hits the road and we have to examine the impact on culture and politics!

  4. Marcus,
    Yes, please borrow-away. I think our approach cannot be the “evils of alcohol” or “remember the Sabbath day.” I think our approach on civic issues needs to take the “common good” into consideration. Often, politicians consider only their own populist views and not the common good of society. Thanks for your comments and good luck in Kentucky! -Chuck

  5. Jake, thanks for your comments. I agree that we cannot legislate morality. Prohibition proved that doesn’t work. But, we can regulate for the common good. We regulate who can purchase to protect minors; we regulate who can sell to protect minors; we regulate the alcohol content to protect health and insure a quality product; and, we regulate alcohol sales by imposing a higher tax (usually called a “sin tax”) on beer, wine, and liquor. So, as a society we are already exercising regulatory control of alcohol.

    The old blue laws regulated when things could be sold, including liquor. Or, more accurately, when they could not be sold, which meant Sunday. We can no more make a case for protecting Sunday than we can for banning alcohol. But, our county supervisors have failed to consider the economic cost of extending beer and wine sales to Sundays. In other words, they plan to increase beer and wine sales by 15%, thinking that all of that will be profit for the county. They are not factoring in the additional costs for law enforcement, social services, emergency responders, and other agencies.

    That was my point, and I plan to press the issue as this topic heats up in our county. On a side note, our county was completely dry until a few years ago, but we were also the moonshine capital of Virginia as late as 1979! Go figure.

    -Chuck

  6. Chuck,

    This is a very interesting post, but I have a question about your reasoning in point #2: have you done a study of the sheriff’s department staffing to make sure that on Sundays they’re currently DOWN 15% when it comes to personnel and resources? It sounds as if you are assuming that Sundays are a “light” day for them since they know there has been no alcohol being sold that day.

    But people can stock up on beer and wine on Saturday and drink it on Sunday. So the same possibilities of alcohol-related crimes exists on Sunday as on any other day of the week; the only real difference under the law change is that people don’t have to make as much of an effort to plan ahead.

    I doubt many law enforcement or emergency services agencies are intentionally left “unprepared” on the sole basis of whether alcohol sales are available.

  7. Patrick, thanks for your comments. Yes, Sundays in our county are the lightest law enforcement coverage of the week, plus in our small town none of our 3 policemen are on duty on Sundays. There is some sheriff’s department patrol, but not at the levels of Fridays or Saturdays. While 15% may overstate the gap, there is a definite gap.

    Also, our emergency services — EMTs and fire are all volunteer and are on-call units with minimal Sunday staffing. Our county is also the largest land-area county in Virginia, so lighter staffing means delayed response time.

    15% may overstate the case, I admit. However, my bigger point is that no consideration has been given to the cost of adding an additional day of beer and wine sales, and I’m sure there will be some cost. Plus, no one has calculated the projected income either.

    At present, I would also take issue with you that the “same possibilities exist” for alcohol-related crimes and accidents as on any other day. My experience is that alcohol abuse is less planned than habitual, impulsive behavior. We already have plenty of DUI drivers and single vehicle accidents that are alcohol-related.

    It seems to me that if our supervisors want to make this an economic argument, they need to do their homework and make a sound case, not an emotional one, for the economic net benefits.

  8. But in Western Australia, the very same state where Mark E is based, the Government has curbed the sale of alcohol in one town in the Kimberley, Halls Creek. Despite all the associated problems that arise from this decision, for the sake of the little children, I maintain it is the right thing to do.

    “Had the Licensing Court not intervened, a whole generation of Aboriginal kids would have been condemned to a life of behavioural problems, neglect, health issues, educational failures, substance abuse and juvenile crime.

    http://www.amawa.com.au/media/releases/2009/2009_05_11.asp

    MARK COLVIN: In Western Australia, researchers say the alcohol ban in the Kimberley town of Halls Creek should continue, despite some strong community opposition.

    Western Australia’s liquor commissioner imposed the ban on takeaway full-strength alcohol in May.

    About 30 per cent of children in Halls Creek are affected by foetal alcohol syndrome.

    ..there is evidence that the ban has led to a reduction in alcohol-related harm.

    http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2008/s2618327.htm

  9. Chuck: I see your viewpoint but I disagree completely.

    First, in item 3, you claim that Virginia doesn’t allow alcohol sales on election days. That’s totally false.

    Second, the economic benefits can be clearly determined by the fact that restaurants have no t located franchises in the county because of the lack of Sunday b/w sales. You’ve got to be naive if you think otherwise. Look at Walmart’s decision to pull out of the Blairs store.

  10. Southside, you’re wrong. Virginia does ban alcohol sales on federal election days, see http://www.virginiaplaces.org/alcohol/abc.html.

    Walmart’s decision to pull out of Blairs had nothing to do with Sunday beer and wine sales, and you know it. Neither does our lack of national chain restaurants. We are an economically depressed area, with high unemployment and low discretionary spending. The demographics and population densities don’t work for national chains. Thanks for the heads-up on your site of Fred Ingram’s next move. Many of us will oppose it on purely economic grounds because it will cost the county more than it will bring in.

    In a county that funds its schools so poorly, we do not need more voodoo economics to push off changing a law that is actually saving the county money at this point.

    I am not opposed to this issue being on the ballot — I support the community’s right to decide, but I am opposed to the deception that this will solve all of our county’s economic problems. The net result will be a wash at best, and a deficit in all probability. Thanks for your comments, and you’re right — we disagree.

  11. First thing: On election day alcohol sales, totally False. The site you’re referencing has outdated information. Only STATE ABC stores used to be closed on election day while retail beer/wine sales haven’t been blocked at all.

    Citation: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+4.1-120

    Part the second: I’m in retail and have good sources in the retail environment. I know what I’m talking about regarding the lack of restaurants in dry county areas.

    Round Three: Do you really think that county public safety budgets will be increased by 15% to offset beer/wine cleanup expenses? Of course not.

    Let’s take your “Finally” paragraph apart, shall we?

    You say: “Finally, our county is not a destination for tourists or those seeking recreation.”

    I say: Did (for example) Smith Mountain Lake cease to exist? There are lots of other tourist spots and recreation areas that blow holes into your statement.

    >>>

    You say: “The only people needing to buy alcohol on Sundays are most likely the ones who have problems with it in the first place.”

    I say: “How utterly condescending. You should know better than to make such broad generalizations.”

    To make your argument, you have used patently false statements (as proved above). You have also pulled scary numbers out of thin air (budgets going up by 15%).

    That sounds a lot like another group’s tactics here in Pittsylvania County. They’ve told us that the land will be radioactive for 530535 years without one bit of proof.

    If you don’t have logical arguments to support your reasoning, appeal to the basic instinct of voters. Fear.

    Shame on you for using false information and made-up numbers as justification for your point of view.

    1. I’m still checking on the election day statutes, but if you’re right, I stand corrected. However, my point was that there are times that the state regulates alcohol sales, and even the link your provide establishes that point. Sundays, except municipalities that so elect, are one day the state chooses not to sell alcohol.

      Retail — Since you appear to have complete knowledge of why we don’t have major restaurants in Pittsylvania County, I’ll let that one go.

      Public safety — Fact: if beer and wine sales are allowed on Sunday that will increase their sales/purchase availability by 15%. Your response “of course not” to the obvious fact that it will take an increase of some kind in law enforcement is just your opinion based on nothing. Public safety costs may not increase by 15%, but if you add sales capacity, other capacities will need a corresponding increase, too. Common sense. My objection to this issue is that we’re being told that this is an economic issue, but nobody has done an economic study to determine how much the county will realize, and what the attendant costs will be, or what the net benefit or cost will be. “Of course not” is not a rational answer.

      Smith Mountain Lake does still exist, but Pittsylvania County is not as well-known as Franklin and Bedford counties as gateways to the lake. The county has no county recreation facilities, and I’m not sure what other tourist and recreation areas you’re talking about since you don’t mention any.

      You are the one who characterized the fact of 15% as a scary number, I didn’t. I take exception to your accusation of fear-mongering, which is what you are doing by dragging in the uranium issue. Let’s have a factual debate about beer and wine sales on Sunday. But, drop the hysteria and “shame on yous” because those aren’t facts, either. I think my arguments are perfectly logical, but obviously you disagree. Okay, I’m happy for you to do so. Interesting to see how all this turns out.

  12. The state controls only hard-liquor sales and the Sunday closing policy on that is eroding quickly. In 2006, cities with >500K populations became Sunday-open ABC stores. In 2008, that threshold was lowered to >100K.

    In 2006, the state sold $8,700,000 of ABC products on Sunday, generating $860,000 in additional revenues. Therefore, the state sees the wisdom of allowing Sunday sales in their own stores.

    Next topic: No recreation areas in the county? None organized, that is. If I lived in the county, the best summer recreation area would be a BBQ in my backyard. Guess what goes good with that home-made recreation area? Most people know that answer.

    Public safety & Economic impact: Correct. There’s no study and my common-sense view says that the tax revenues would be more than enough to offset any potential increase in public-safety costs.

    I stick with what I’ve said. You don’t have any facts to say that Sunday beer-wine sales would be harmful. You’ve pulled out intangibles which just don’t make logical sense to me (and probably others). You’ve got nothing on your side except inertia, and inertia fails.

    I do give you a tremendous amount of bonus points for not cloaking your argument in the “God says so.” rhetoric that others have tried.

  13. We seem to be at a stand-off here, but that’s okay. Thanks for acknowledging that I’m at least trying to look at this as a true economic issue, which I think it is. I’ll paraphrase your comment — You don’t have any facts to say that Sunday beer-wines sales won’t be harmful. Not sure what the inertia thing is about, and didn’t realize I had it on my side, but no one has answered my original question — What revenue will this produce, and what costs are attendant? Your “more than enough” answer is just as empty of facts as you accuse mine of being. Maybe I’ll see you Tuesday night at the Board of Supervisors meeting. Thanks for the work-out, you’re pretty good at advocating your position. -Chuck

  14. Based on this article which shows the economic benefits of opening up Sunday ABC sales…

    http://www.thecollegianur.com/2008/03/06/city-abc-stores-will-now-be-open-on-sundays/

    … you can extrapolate that there will be some good revenues.

    How much… I don’t know.

    But I do stand behind the “inertia” comment. You’re for keeping it the way it is and not moving into the unknown.

    I’m in the opposite camp. Any revenue is better than no revenue.

    Wish I could make it for Tuesday’s BOS meeting, but SouthsideCentral will be covering Danville City Council’s meeting LIVE!. We’ll have PittsCo updates as soon as our sources get them to us.

    Hey, stop by the SCBlog often. I’d love to have your views on topics.

  15. Southside, you’re right I’m not for moving into the unknown, but I’m all for moving into the future that is better than the status quo. By your own admission, ABC stores and beer/wine sales are not the same. So, I’m still waiting for a cost-benefit analysis. “Any revenue” is not better than no revenue if the net result is zero or near zero. Fortunately, the decision is not up to you or me, or even the Board. I do have confidence in the democratic process, and look forward to the public debate on this issue. As a pastor, I am concerned about the economics of this county and of my town. I look for leadership which does its homework and acts in the best interest of its citizenry. I don’t see it here on this issue with the way Mr. Ingram has handled this. I’ve met Fred and he seems like a nice guy, but he needs to do his homework, or get someone to do it for him.

    I will stop by the blog — didn’t know you were around until this issue came up, but glad to see someone keeping up, even if we disagree. I’ll stop in and leave a comment now and again. Thanks for the invitation. -Chuck

  16. I don’t even DRINK, for the record – maybe 3 glasses of something in a YEAR – but I love to COOK, and this law so frustrates me. I’m not religious, and I like to shop on Sundays so I can get coupons from the paper and come home and cook.
    Twice this year I’ve needed something I could not BUY to cook my Sunday dinner with – once, some red wine for a stew, and second, I needed a Guiness beer for a chocolate cake.
    I think it’s more like THIS – people that DRINK always stockpile it up before Sunday, because they KNOW this stupid religious law affects them… people like me that rarely BUY booze get hit with a bit surprise, oh you can’t buy that! Why not? Because it’s SUNDAY. No Tequila Lime Chicken for you, no beercan chicken, no hotdogs boiled in beer – no beef burgandy – none of that. Bleh. I hate these laws.

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