Commentary: When I moved to New Mexico in 2002, I was told the reason there was a set number of liquor licenses in the state was to control drunken driving and the other problems associated with alcohol abuse.
Which seemed like a strange way to approach what was a real problem, given New Mexico’s lax DUI laws at the time. Penalties topped out at the fourth conviction, meaning there was no difference between the fourth and the 40th. Unless somebody was hurt or killed in a crash, drunken drivers could expect a wrist slap.
The conventional thinking at that time was if we punished them, even by just taking away their driver’s license, it would only end up hurting their families.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson, working with Republicans like former Sen. Kent Cravens, ended that old way of thinking and dramatically reduced drunken-driving deaths in the state through a combination of tougher laws and more aggressive enforcement.
And yet the limit on liquor licenses remains.
It is now clear that the issue is not DUI or alcohol abuse, but rather protecting the investments of a small number of powerful business owners.
Last week the City Council voted 4-3 to support legislation that would crack the door open ever so slightly by allowing more restaurants to sell alcohol. But, only alcohol produced by New Mexico distilleries. And, only for restaurants located within economic development districts.
While there were some public safety arguments raised during the City Council debate on the issue, the primary argument against the proposal came from those who own one or more of the prized liquor licenses, and who believe the government has an obligation to safeguard their business investments.
One business owner said he was counting on the fortunes to be made selling his licenses to finance his retirement. Another conceded that we have a broken system, but then argued that nothing could be done to fix it because it would hurt existing licenses holders.
Because of the artificial scarcity of liquor licenses created by the state government, those selling existing licenses can get up to $1 million for them. The average price is $300,000, according to the city, more than 10 times as much as in neighboring states. Obviously, that serves as an enormous detriment to new restaurants moving into New Mexico. Not to mention reducing the options for diners in the state.
Current license holders may be right when they say ending the restriction would mean more competition for their businesses and would lower the value of their licenses. But, when did it become government’s job to protect businesses from competition?
The government’s job is to promote the common good and work toward increasing the number of businesses that operate in the state. Maintaining a set number of liquor licenses to discourage out-of-state investment in order to protect a small number of current business owners does the exact opposite.
There are many valid reasons for a state to set laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol, most involving public safety. Protecting the business interests of those who have invested in licenses at artificially inflated prices is not among them.
Walter Rubel is editorial page editor of the Sun-News. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow @WalterRubel on Twitter.