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Letter: Balancing State Budget on Backs of Liquor Stores Will Ruin Them

(Editors Note: This letter was sent to Governor Paterson and to the Manhasset Press for publication.)

I received from you today an undated letter touting your budget proposal to increase the number of stores selling wine by over 800 percent. I must admit that I had to smile at your gallows humor when you stated that your proposal will help me become more competitive. Governor, the short answer is that your proposal to pit my business, that of selling wine and spirits solely, against Costco, Wal-Mart, Stop & Shop, and hundreds of other big box chain stores that are permitted to sell tens of thousands of goods besides just wine and spirits, will not make me more competitive. What it will do is cause the demise of this industry, putting thousands out of work and, it will cause great harm to the citizens of New York. I object to your proposal on four different fronts - as an employer, as a parent, as a citizen and, as a consumer.

As an employer, I want to state unequivocally that your proposal will destroy my business, and with it over 22 jobs, all paying well over minimum wage, plus over $60,000 paid annually in licensing fees and for local school and general taxes. Your proposal focuses only on licensing fees from new licensees, not the revenue loss from closing thousands of stores and throwing thousands of employees into the ranks of the unemployed. Your own Law Review Commission advised you specifically against making this very mistake just last month, precisely because the economic consequences deserve detailed study and consideration, which has not occurred. Your proposal is going to cost the State money, because the loss of businesses and jobs will far outweigh the licensing revenue you hope to obtain. But, there are other problems with your proposal - bigger societal problems - than just decimating an industry that has served this State so well for over 76 years.

As a parent of teenage children, I reject your proposal because I know it will increase underage drinking in New York State, and we’ll soon have the same problems as California. I trust you know that California in the last five years has had three separate legislative proposals to increase spending (much, much more than the revenue amount you think you’ll earn by licensing big box stores) to combat their underage drinking problem. Everywhere the youth in that state look, there’s alcohol for sale. The onslaught of availability has resulted, very predictably, in an underage drinking problem that the lawmakers of that state don’t know how to contain. How can you, the parent of a teen, propose increasing the number of outlets selling wine from 2,700 to over 23,000 without considering the effect on your own child? Remember too, that once you make this change, the sorry legacy it will leave behind – broken families, young lives destroyed, increased underage drunk driving deaths – cannot be rolled back. It is permanent. The experience of other states is there for all of us to see and frankly, your job is not to propose an eight-fold increase in the number of outlets distributing wine. Your job is to protect the citizens and youth of this state. Wine has more than double the alcohol content of beer, making it a sure-fire magnet for the underage wannabe drinker.

It is absolutely assured that this proposal will endanger more New Yorkers’ lives. No doubt your staff has apprised you of the most recent National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration’s “Traffic Safety Annual Assessment Highlights” which delineate in stark and sad statistical terms the results of poor public policy decisions regarding the unfettered distribution of alcohol. In Table 8, the state by state statistics on Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities tells the terrible story. For 2008, in California: 1,029 Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities; in Texas: 1,269; in Florida: 875; and, in New York: only 341. Although the goal is always zero fatalities, why do you suppose, Governor, that New York is so much better than these other large states? The reason why we enjoy dramatically safer roads than states that distribute wine wherever food is sold is because our system of alcohol distribution and control is just that - well controlled – controlled in fact by a system of independent retailers whose only business is the sale of wine and spirits. Why you want to change it and create a known risk to New Yorkers’ lives is beyond me. Your motivation, a blown budget, doesn’t legitimize knowingly risking the safety of the citizens of this State.

Just as a quick aside, I hate to pick on California, but, I’m sure your staff has also told you that their alcohol problems are only growing, not subsiding. There is a lobbyist fueled debate raging in their legislature right now regarding the use of self-checkout systems in big box stores that sell alcohol. Guess what? It turns out that the big box stores don’t give a darn about public safety or underage drinking. So, even though there are web sites and blogs devoted to teaching kids how to “game” self checkouts, the big box execs are still pushing for it and we all know that, sooner or later, what Wal-Mart, Costco, and Stop & Shop want, they get. What explanation will you offer the citizens of this State when law enforcement, social services, hospitals and yes, morgues, are all overrun? Will your budget woes hold up as justification in the court of public opinion when the number of underage deaths and adult deaths skyrockets, Governor?

Surely you’re familiar with the alcohol “epidemic” in Britain. It seems that supermarkets, once licensed to sell all forms of alcohol, decided it was the perfect “loss leader” to do battle with. Because of the big box store pricing strategy, the UK is in the throes of an unmitigated public health meltdown and the government is powerless to fix it, because as you know, once you open Pandora’s Box, it cannot be closed.

Lastly, as it should be of course, is the issue of consumer convenience. Your proposal is being made because you ran out of money. However, the chain store lobbyists have tried to make your problem into a consumer issue, arguing that shopping convenience is so important that it trumps all other concerns. The problem, though, is that the consumer will have less choice if your proposal were to pass. Let’s look at Florida, a large state with plenty of New Yorkers now residing there. The number of wines available to the Floridian wine consumer is a little under 7,000, a number that sounds pretty good. However, the number of wines available to the New York consumer is over 22,000. Why? Because in Florida, if a wine doesn’t sell and move off that shelf in a hurry, it falls victim to the chain store “sku rationalization” process that all products in their stores must pass. In New York, we’re not quite so Machiavellian about our shelf space. I’m perfectly happy to promote a wine I like and believe in, to hand sell it to my customers, to help little wineries get noticed and grow. So, you see, even the issue of consumer convenience doesn’t ring true when you look at other states with the chain store model. Also, as you’ve no doubt been told, the majority of New York wineries know that they will suffer if your proposal comes to pass. Given that the quality of New York wines is really beginning to make the world sit up and take notice, creating yet another economic victim of your budget woes would be a great shame, indeed.

You currently enjoy governing one of the safest states in the Union because your current alcohol distribution model is so good. It serves the public well, yet it protects the public simultaneously. Just its pure efficacy would make most lawmakers think long and hard before dismantling it. So, Governor Paterson, you can change the laws and squish me like a little bug, as big box stores continue their thrust into the American landscape. But remember this – you are not dealing with the baker, or the butcher, or the fishmonger. You are proposing to fundamentally change the industry that for 76 plus years has responsibly distributed a drug – the most abused drug in the world. How it is distributed has known far reaching societal implications, yet with this proposal you seem willing to gamble with the safety of your citizenship. I understand that you are between a rock and a hard place on how to balance your budget. However, widening wine beverage alcohol distribution eightfold will not solve your budget problems. It will exacerbate them and great pain, felt by many of your constituents, will come with the added cost.

If your proposal were to become law, you will have made a tragic and irrevocable mistake, a mistake that was completely foreseeable and therefore avoidable. You have the benefit of knowing what harm widespread distribution of alcohol has done to other states and to other countries. To me, having this knowledge obligates you to all of us, Governor. You need to pull your disastrous wine in grocery proposal out of the budget once and for all. Your proposal is bad public policy. It will hurt many New Yorkers economically and worse, physically and socially. Worst of all, it will put the youth of this State at considerably more risk than they are at today, and that, to me, is simply unacceptable.

Ed Wassmer, Proprietor

Young’s Fine Wines & Spirits

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Should you want to make the governor, as well as your state senator and assemblyperson, aware of your concerns, visit www.lastmainstreetstore.com and, in less than a minute, send a prepared letter to them.