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Our increasingly non-dry state

There are now only five counties in Texas where you can’t buy alcohol.

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass.

“Well, I think at first it was uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know. I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” Black said.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas.

To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole.

“Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” said Brendan Payne, a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas.


But the real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003.

“That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” said John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

“They gave us everything we asked for,” Hatch said. “We went from needing 35 percent of all voters to 35 percent of the last election for governor. So it made it a lot more manageable. We doubled the amount of time from 30 days to 60 days. We made the signature requirement the same as any other petition: if you sign your name “Michael Marks,” that’s good enough.”

A flood of elections followed. In the 15 years preceding the law, there were about 150 wet-dry elections statewide. In the 15 years following the law, there were close to 950 elections. Nearly 80 percent of those went wet.

Fascinating. I’ve noted a few of these elections over the years – Lubbock County, whose dryness I experienced as a visitor in the 80s, was a big one – but I didn’t realize how close to extinction the notion of a dry county was. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the last five holdouts hang on. Congratulations to the people of Martin County. Please celebrate responsibly.

Allowing alcohol sales in Buda and Kyle

More Texas towns seek to loosen restrictions on selling alcohol.

A political action committee hoping to make Buda and Kyle wet said it has collected enough signatures to put language easing laws regulating alcohol sales on each city’s ballot.

The Better Business for Hays political action committee, recently formed by business owners, is working on a proposition that would allow all alcoholic beverages to be sold in both cities where permitted under Texas law, clearing the way for a wider variety of bars and other establishments that serve and sell alcohol.

Currently, grocery and convenience stores in Buda and Kyle can sell beer and wine. Liquor stores can set up shop in Kyle but not Buda. Restaurants in both cities can obtain alcohol permits if less than half of their revenue comes from alcohol sales, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

A restaurant’s permit allows the sale of liquor, wine and beer, but a less expensive permit to sell only beer and wine is not an option in either city.


City election officials have to certify the signatures against a list of registered voters to then make it on the ballots.

If approved, the proposition would be on the May 2012 ballot in Kyle and the November 2012 ballot in Buda.

We’ve seen quite a few of these elections in recent years – in Dallas, Lubbock, Luling and Friendswood – and as far as I can tell since I’ve been paying attention to this sort of thing, none have failed to pass. I’m always amazed at how many of these places there are, and how it is that these laws have remained on the books for so long. I wish the people of Buda and Kyle the best as they seek to update themselves.

Lawsuit to overturn Dallas election allowing expanded alcohol sales set for September

So last November, voters in the city of Dallas among other places were asked to decide whether or not to loosen restrictions on alcohol sales there. The measure passed, but not without controversy:

Lawyer Andy Siegel, who led the opposition to the Dallas referendum, promised to file a suit to get the results of the beer and wine referendum overturned.

“The pro-wet folks simply failed to get enough qualified voter signatures on petitions to lawfully put this on the ballot,” Siegel wrote in an e-mail. Backers of the propositions said they had plenty of signatures.

And file suit they did, almost immediately after the election. The crux of the dispute:

In May, the group Progress Dallas turned in a petition to force the election. They needed 68,846 signatures to force the initiative onto a citywide ballot.

About 9 p.m. on June 23, the deadline for the Dallas city secretary to validate the signatures, City Secretary Deborah Watkins declared that the petitions contained “sufficient signatures to qualify as valid,” prompting the City Council to call the election. Watkins’ office had worked through that afternoon checking the signatures.

Watkins only later gave the actual number of valid signatures, which was 69,702. It was a number with much less breathing room than the pro-alcohol expansion forces had hoped for.

Meanwhile, Siegel has asserted the election was improperly called. He references the Texas election code, which says the city secretary is to certify to City Council “the number of qualified voters signing the petition,” not just the fact that there were enough.

The lawsuit contends that Watkins’ office failed to correctly certify the number of qualified voters who signed the petition. It also asserts that city officials failed to differentiate between the city as a whole and historically dry political subdivisions.

“By doing so, the City failed to count legal votes for an election to change the dry status previously elected by historic dry voting units,” the lawsuit alleges. “Moreover, the City Secretary and City Council unlawfully disenfranchised and prevented those qualified voters currently resign in historic dry voting units…”

Some other issues came up at a pretrial hearing:

Watkins took the stand Tuesday, and [plaintiff’s attorney Leland] de la Garza questioned her about her office’s procedures for verifying the signatures. One subject of contention was whether her office verified whether the signatures were from “qualified” voters or “registered” voters.

De la Garza argued that the law makes important distinctions between the two. Watkins saw it differently.

“They mean the same to me,” she said.

After declining to halt the issue of permits for alcohol sales that are now legal under the referendum, the judge set a date for trial.

Fannin County District Judge Laurine Blake, who has been specially appointed to preside over the case, set it for Sept. 12.

The judge also boiled the case down to the debate over whether Dallas City Secretary Deborah Watkins’ office properly verified and counted the signatures on the petition that forced the election. City attorneys had been trying to get that part of the case thrown out on jurisdictional grounds before trial, but capitulated that fight this morning by withdrawing their plea.

“That was a surprise,” one of the attorneys fighting the election, Leland de la Garza, said after the hearing.

The judge did give city attorneys one victory, agreeing as they had contended that she not have authority to hear another issue, whether the election disenfranchised historically dry political subdivisions such as Preston Hollow.

As someone who would have voted for that proposition had I lived in Dallas, I’m rooting for the city to prevail. I’m also very interested in that question of “qualified” versus “registered” voters, which I could see potentially having a big effect on future referenda. Any lawyers out there want to weigh in on this?

Dry Dallas update

Lots of money being spent to remove alcohol sales restrictions in Dallas.

The group behind next month’s ballot measures to expand the sale of alcohol in “dry” areas of Dallas has raised nearly $1 million – mainly from grocery stores, restaurants, real estate developers, hotels and other businesses that stand to benefit from passage.

Retailers have contributed the most money (about $700,000), followed by restaurants and hotels (about $140,000), commercial real estate companies ($106,000) and community members (nearly $3,000), said Gary Huddleston, co-chairman of the Keep the Dollars in Dallas campaign (formerly Progress Dallas) and a Kroger executive.

The money has been used for the petition drive to add the two initiatives to the Nov. 2 ballot, legal costs, advertising and other campaign expenses, Huddleston said.

In less than two weeks, Dallas residents will decide whether to eliminate dry areas citywide for retail beer and wine sales – largely in the southern sector. They’ll also vote on a second initiative to let restaurants in dry areas sell drinks to customers without requiring them to join a private club.

The Keep the Dollars in Dallas campaign says additional sales tax revenue from expanded alcohol sales could help the cash-needy city. Opponents contend expanded beer and wine sales would increase public intoxication, impaired driving and other violations.

“You’ll have a rash of folks – a flood of new beer and wine operators – on every corner of the city,” said Andy Siegel, a Dallas attorney who represents a coalition of churches and alcohol retailers opposing expanded beer and wine sales at retailers. “Like it or not, these stores with beer and wine permits often become a hotbed of criminal activity.”

New sales could generate $33.4 million in additional tax revenue annually and create 29,000 jobs in Dallas, according to an economic study by Waco economist Ray Perryman for Keep the Dollars in Dallas. A city of Dallas report estimated $11.3 million in annual sales tax benefits.

As I’ve said before, I’m a bit skeptical of the sales tax projections, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I’d vote for this because I see no reason for these silly restrictions to be on the books. The fearmongering by the opponents is far more ridiculous as far as I’m concerned.

Today’s TABC

Interesting story about the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission and its struggles to find an identity. To me, the key bit of the whole thing is right here:

Moreover, the agency, formed in 1935, still has many rules and regulations on the books — wholesalers selling beer to retailers by law can’t accept credit as payment — more appropriate to the 1930s rather than 2010. As a result, the beverage commission can find itself in the peculiar position of a 21st century regulatory body enforcing moonshiner-era laws.

A wake-up call was sounded in 2005, when the Sunset Advisory Commission issued a sharply worded report on the beverage commission’s failure to keep up with the times. “TABC and the (Alcoholic Beverage) Code are in clear need of modernization,” it concluded.

We see that to some extent with the recent successful attempts by various municipalities to allow or expand alcohol sales, in effect finally ending Prohibition for themselves. A much bigger issue is all the state laws that still exist from that era, especially those that restrict the way alcohol can be wholesaled and transported. The virtual monopoly that the beer distributors have in this state as a result of that is a disgrace, which mostly benefits the behemoths at the expense of microbreweries. You’d think in a state that’s filled to the brim with self-styled defenders of the free market system that this travesty would have been fixed ages ago, but campaign contributions speak louder than words. It won’t surprise me if we hit the 100th anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal without any change to that status quo.

How dry is Dallas?

I’m fascinated by stories about elections to allow the sale of alcohol in places where it is currently prohibited. I suppose I find it weird that these vestiges of Prohibition are still with us. I especially find it strange to learn about such restrictions in big cities like Dallas, since my impression is that they primarily exist in rural areas, but clearly that is not the case.

Since March, when Keep the Dollars in Dallas began collecting petition signatures to force an election [to eliminate dry areas in the city], a central theme of its campaign has been that added sales-tax revenue from expanded alcohol sales could help close the city’s budget gap.

City staffers buttressed that argument during a May presentation to the City Council of budget “brainstorming ideas.” The presentation asserted that the expansion of alcohol sales would add $11.3 million in sales taxes per year.


The city’s report calculated potential tax revenue from each of two ballot initiatives. One would permit the sale of beer and wine – but not liquor – at stores throughout Dallas. A second would eliminate the “private club” requirement that exists in dry areas, which requires the formality of admitting restaurant customers into a “club” before allowing them to buy drinks.

To project potential revenues from the first initiative, city staffers obtained confidential estimates of beer and wine sales per square foot of retail space from one convenience store chain and three grocery store chains in wet areas. The staffers then applied those numbers to all of Dallas assuming the entire city went wet.

The resulting prediction was that alcohol sales in the city’s grocery and convenience stores would grow from $352 million to about $973 million per year. Taxed at 1 percent, the added sales would generate about $6.2 million in city revenue.

To project revenues from the second ballot initiative, involving alcohol sales in restaurants, city staffers performed a similar extrapolation. Based on mixed-beverage tax receipt figures in wet areas from the state comptroller’s office, they estimated such alcohol sales would go from about $542 million to about $880 million. From an effective tax rate on such sales of about 1.5 percent, the city would receive an added $5.1 million in revenue.

City staffers concede that not all of these gains could actually be realized, since many of the new sales in areas going wet would be “cannibalized” from areas that were already wet.

“As a result, these revenue estimates should be considered a maximum potential revenue gain,” the city research report says.

I don’t know how much of Dallas is dry, so it’s hard for me to say how credible I find the proponents’ numbers. The only dry place in Houston that I’m aware of is a small piece of the Heights, where restaurants that aren’t fortunate enough to have a grandfathered permit cannot sell booze, but the overall effect there is miniscule. Making this area wet would make only a tiny difference to the city’s bottom line. I figure the more of the city that already allows alcohol sales, the more “cannibalization” there would be. Be that as it may, if I lived in Dallas I’d vote for these propositions on the grounds that I think it’s silly for there to be dry areas in this day and age. Whether or not eliminating them brings in extra tax revenues isn’t a factor to me. I don’t see any public policy rationale for these little alcohol-free islands, and the experience of the Collin County town of Anna strongly suggests that nothing bad will happen if they disappear. I say pour a cold one and join the 21st Century, Dallas. The DMN editorial board has a sensible take as well.

Raise a glass to Luling and Friendswood

The ballot proposition to allow alcohol sales in Luling passed easily.

The measure passed with 340 votes in favor and 118 against, with two ballots yet to be certified.

The referendum was added to the ballot after a petition was submitted by Stuart Carter, leader of Luling Citizens for Economic Growth. Carter said he hopes the new law will attract chain restaurants and hotels to the city’s Interstate 10 corridor and provide jobs for residents.


Carter, who was having a small party at his house on Election Night, said he wanted to get a 95 percent mandate, but he is happy with 74 percent.

“The voters indicated they are ready for economic growth,” he said. “I’m drinking one beer, but I might drink two tonight. I might break my one-beer rule.”

Party on, dude. And when you’ve sobered up, hop in your car and drive over to Friendswood.

Breaking a 46-year dry spell, voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the sale of alcohol at restaurants and grocery stores in the city’s downtown.

Proposition 1, which would allow convenience stores and wine shops to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption, passed with 2,505 votes — 68 percent — for, compared to 1,163 — 32 percent — against, according to complete, unofficial returns.

Proposition 2, which would allow restaurants to sell mixed beverages, passed with 2,648 votes — 72 percent — for, compared to 1,021 — 28 percent — against.

Both propositions allow alcohol sales in a corridor along FM 518 between FM 528 and FM 2351.

A good day all ’round for those who enjoy a wee dram now and again.

If Lubbock can do it, so can Luling

The little town of Luling is looking to follow in Lubbock’s footsteps and allow alcohol sales.

For some towns, being dry is part of the local character: The absence of alcohol reflects the particular values of the community. For others, dry laws are relics of Prohibition, waiting to be overturned.

Stuart Carter thinks Luling falls into the latter category. Carter and his wife, Rosine, are co-chairs of Luling Citizens for Economic Growth, an organization responsible for a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot to allow the sale of liquor throughout town.

They and others who signed the petition to get the matter on the ballot say allowing mixed-drink sales will help spur development.

Carter points out that Luling isn’t actually dry right now. The sale of beer is allowed, and liquor sales are permitted in the portion of town that lies in Guadalupe County.

“We already have drinking,” he said. “We already have a liquor store.”

And judging from the rest of the story, it sounds like the rest of the city will be able to have those things as well. Good luck, y’all.

Lubbock gets officially wet

You may recall that the city of Lubbock voted to overturn its prohibition on alcohol this May, ending its long history of being America’s largest dry city (the vote was for the whole county, but still). Well, the citizens of Lubbock have been waiting since then for the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission to approve permits so that the booze can actually be sold. This week, those permits finally came, and the good times started rolling.

Beer trucks fanned out across Lubbock Wednesday morning making their first deliveries to grocers and other new alcohol retailers in the newly “wet” city.

And the demand, it appears, was bigger than distributors’ ability to reach everybody Wednesday.

“We couldn’t guarantee product in all nine stores today because of the demand on the distributors,” said Eddie Owens, director of corporate communications for United Supermarkets. “Everyone wanted the product at the same time.”

“Everyone,” as it turned out, added up to 83 retail locations that received permits from the Lubbock office of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. That included a mixed beverage permit for a bar and a restaurant mixed beverage permit.

“This was new for us,” Owens said, noting that United had never before dealt with a “reset” – rearranging store design to accommodate a new product – for all nine of its local stores at the same time.

Although there may not have been enough beer to go around, at least there was a lot of beer out there.

Wine fanciers weren’t so fortunate, however. Lubbock has no local wine distributors, so shipments come from elsewhere in the state.

Owens said that on the first day, only United’s Market Street locations had wine, and a small selection at that.

I’m sure that will improve over time. Here’s mud in your eye, Lubbock.

Don’t sell that beer just yet in Lubbock

It’s always something.

It will be eight weeks or more before shoppers see beer and wine in grocers’ coolers as stores line up to receive state alcohol permits.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission will issue permits to sell alcohol throughout Lubbock County after voters overwhelming approved two propositions expanding alcohol sales during Saturday’s county-wide election.

But questions about Lubbock’s zoning ordinances could further slow the process of opening the city up to alcohol retailers.

Challenging the city’s alcohol zoning ordinances, Pinkie’s and Majestic Liquor, which own the liquor stores at The Strip, last week filed a lawsuit against the city of Lubbock and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission claiming the ordinances violate state law. The Lubbock City Council approved alcohol zoning ordinances in November 2008 in anticipation of Saturday’s vote.

Anti-alcohol PAC Truth About Alcohol Sales co-chairman Josh Allen said while he’s not involved in the suit, he does not “believe the City Council has much of an ordinance to stand on.”

He described the zoning ordinances, which use specific language regulating alcohol sales in Lubbock’s West Broadway District, and set a city standard for floor space and percentage of sales allowed of alcohol retailers, as contradictory to TABC regulations.

The liquor stores asked 237th District Judge Sam Medina to bar the city from issuing the necessary paperwork to obtain alcoholic beverage permits until an agreement can be reached on the wording of the ordinance. An Avalanche-Journal story last week reported Medina will consider at a hearing later this month whether to grant an injunction.

Here’s that earlier story.

The suit has nothing to do with whether alcohol should be sold in Lubbock, but rather who can sell it where, said Zach Brady, attorney for the stores.

“As far as we’re concerned, the citizens are going to decide whether we have alcohol sales in Lubbock,” Brady said. “But if we do choose to have those sales, my clients want to make sure that the rules are fair and that they comply with state law.”

The city council approved last December changes to the city ordinances defining where alcohol could be sold in anticipation of Saturday’s vote. Lubbock overstepped its authority when the council limited the size of package stores and specified what types of businesses could sell alcohol in the same area, Brady said.

The liquor stores asked 237th District Judge Sam Medina to bar the city from issuing the necessary paperwork to obtain alcoholic beverage permits until an agreement can be reached on the wording of the ordinance.

Cities do have options for zoning under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, but the ordinances they establish cannot conflict with the state law, Brady said.

“What they’ve chosen to do is not among their options,” he said. “What they can’t do, expressly under the code, is to discriminate among the different classes of alcohol retailers. They can’t let one type of business sell alcohol in a given area and not let another type of business locate in that area.”

Obviously, the current setup is a better deal for the existing liquor retailers than whatever comes next will be. I’ve no idea what the merits of their suit are, but I can’t blame them for taking this step to protect their business. We’ll see what the judge thinks. Be sure to read this Texas Monthly feature, in the May edition, about the environment in Lubbock leading up to the vote as well.

There is now beer in Lubbock

Someone pour me a cold one!

Lubbock County voters overwhelmingly approved two ballot propositions expanding alcohol sales in the county during a countywide election that ended Saturday.

Proposition 1, which expands packaged alcohol sales in the county, passed by a nearly 2-1 margin with 64.5 percent in favor.

Proposition 2 to allow mixed-drink sales in restaurants passed with about 69.5 percent in favor.


The early voting numbers sparked excitement at pro-alcohol expansion Political Action Committee Lubbock County Wins’ watch party at the Hawthorn Inn and Suites.

“There were lots of cheers in the room and relief that the results were in our favor,” the PAC’s chairwoman, Melissa Pierce, said when early voting results came up on the television screen in the hotel’s conference room.

“I expected it to be very, very close” she said, but explained she would have preferred to see a larger voter turnout.

Only 35 percent of the county’s 144,910 registered voters cast ballots.

But Pierce said she wasn’t surprised by what looks like Lubbock County voters’ approval of the propositions.

“I think Lubbock is a progressive city and we’re ready for this,” the stay-at-home mom said.

I don’t know about the “progressive” part, but let’s not quibble over semantics. It’s a good day for beer drinkers in Lubbock. Congrats, y’all.

In Lubbock, there is no beer

I remember as a freshman in college staying in Lubbock overnight while driving across Texas and learning what a “dry county” is. That didn’t stop us from having a few brews – we just had to cross the county line to buy them first. I thought at the time that was a dumb way to live, but whatever. Regardless, it pleases me to learn that among other things up for election this May is a local referendum in Lubbock that would allow the sale of alcohol in stores. I can respect the argument against, though I disagree with it, and in the case of the guy who says that allowing alcohol sales in Lubbock would be a reduction in freedom because then the state would be the controlling authority and not the county, I don’t understand it. I’m still rooting for the pro-beer forces to win, because that’s just the kind of guy I am. Good luck, y’all.