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Perdue takes a pass

RALEIGH — In the end, Gov. Beverly Perdue decided it was too risky.

For months, the Perdue administration had been studying privatizing North Carolina’s government-controlled system of liquor sales.

But after all that calculating and consulting, Perdue announced that she didn’t believe going private amounted to such a good business decision after all.

Her consultant told her that the system could bring $313 million for a 30-year license for private companies to run the state-owned warehouse and local liquor package stores. That one-time money seems small considering that the current system generates a little more than $200 million annually for state and local government.

That revenue stream wouldn’t completely dry up under a system of private liquor sales. State and local government would continue collecting taxes on liquor sales. Those tax collections might even increase if private companies were running the liquor business.

Here’s the catch: They’d increase only if liquor sales increased.

Making a pitch based on increased liquor sales is risky all right — politically risky.

In her public pronouncement, Perdue emphasized the numbers, talked up the business implications.

But over the past several months, she had heard from the religious right and social conservatives, led by the N.C. Family Policy Council and the Christian Action League. Those groups made clear that they don’t want to see changes that increase alcohol consumption or underage drinking.

Perdue may not have wanted to become the subject of Sunday sermons. She acknowledged that she didn’t want to become known as the governor who put liquor on Wal-Mart and convenience store shelves.

Of course, beer and wine are already there. And arguments about looser control aren’t so persuasive when you have a uniform drinking age of 21, as North Carolina has had for more than two decades, and strict laws on underage sales appear to be strictly enforced.

Funny, too, how conservative talk of smaller government and less government regulation sounds good as long as it comes in the form of vague political rhetoric.

Privatizing liquor sales offered the state a rare chance to make government smaller. Looks like conservatives, moderates and liberals may take a pass.

As they do, it’s worth remembering how we got here.

Too many local ABC boards and their employees have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some have become local fiefdoms of corruption, an easy avenue for easy money or perks at taxpayers’ expense.

Other local boards have engaged in nonsensical turf wars, leading to stupid business decisions that have driven down profits and even led to losses.

Running government like a business isn’t always the answer, especially when  “consumers” are in fact captive users of difficult-to-provide goods and services.

That’s not the case here. Managing liquor sales with an eye toward profits and the bottom line would have done a lot to drive out the corruption, the cronyism, the poor business decisions.

Politics, though, is a lot more complicated than business.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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