Soules aims to change liquor laws
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
Even though he knows the prospects are not good in a short session with the agenda controlled by a governor of the other party, State. Sen. Bill Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat, said he still hopes to introduce a bill in the New Mexico Legislature later this month that could substantially change the state’s liquor laws. This year’s 30-day session of the Legislature, which begins Tuesday, Jan. 19 in Santa Fe, is confined to budget matters and items on Gov. Susana Martinez’s call. Soules’
SOULES pub license bill is not on the governor’s agenda, and he acknowledges that it might not be germane as a budget bill.
Even so, Soules said he will try to get the bill introduced in the state Senate this year, or at least set the groundwork for its introduction during the 2017 session, when legislators as well as the governor can introduce bills on any topic.
New Mexico is one of several states which limits the number of liquor licenses issued to full-service restaurants, bars, convenience stores, grocery stores, nightclubs, package liquor stores and other businesses to sell beer, wine and hard liquor.
“New Mexico is a quota state and has a limited number of dispenser type licenses,” according to the website of the Alcohol and Gaming Division of the state Regulation and Licensing Department ( http://www. rld. state. nm. us/ alcoholandgaming/ Liquor_ License.aspx).
Since no new dispenser licenses are being issued by the state, existing “licenses of this type are bought and sold, transferred to new locations or leased, with the prior approval of the Alcohol and Gaming Division,” according to the website.
The price for a single license has topped $800,000 in Las Cruces and $900,000 in Santa Fe in recent years.
“It’s not a free market,” Soules said. The state’s quota system is “a restriction on the amount of goods that are there, and therefore puts an artificial price on those goods and services.”
Soules’ thinks one way to deal with the issue is to build on the state’s restaurant license, which allows restaurants to serve beer and wine, but not hard liquor.
Under Soules’ proposal, a restaurant that already has a beer and wine license could get a pub license that would allow it to sell spirits distilled in New Mexico. The restaurant could add vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy and other hard liquors to its menu – but only if they are bottled in New Mexico. He said it could impact about 800 restaurants around the state.
Soules said his draft legislation spells out what would and would not qualify as a New Mexico spirit to prevent anyone from bringing in tanker-trucks filled with any liquor distilled outside the state.
Under his proposal, Soules said a pub license could only be issued in specific areas designated by local governments to boost economic development. Downtown Las Cruces, could be one example, he said, noting that My Brothers Place holds the only full liquor license in the downtown area. “Not having a liquor license holds up downtown development,” Soules said.
Limiting pub license availability to restaurants that already have beer and wine licenses, and letting local governments make the final decision would limit the number of licenses, he said, creating a way to “work on the negative impact of our current liquor laws without harming current license holders.”
As part of the bill, Soules said he will propose a fee of $2,000 for a restaurant to add a pub license. That’s “a reasonable amount,” Soules said, because it will pay for the necessary inspections, but won’t unduly burden restaurants who want it. And, he said, restaurants that hold beer and wine licenses have already qualified for licenses and have trained servers on staff.
Soules said his proposed bill also could benefit rural New Mexico, and promote “responsible alcohol consumption.”
Because the value of dispenser licenses is so high, Soules said, many locally owned businesses, including some in sparsely populated areas, can’t afford to buy them. National chains “with deep pockets” are buying up liquor licenses all over the state, he said, while “local mom and pop businesses that are the heart of downtown areas” can’t afford them.
In some cases, that leaves people in rural areas miles from the nearest full-service liquor distributor, Soules said. And, if they travel a long distance to buy liquor and consume it far from home, the chances of them drinking and driving may increase, he said.
And, whether a pub license was issued in a big city or a small town, Soules said, it would promote New Mexico-made products to local residents and visitors.
His proposal “pushes a whole new industry,” Soules said. It would open up a new in-state market for New Mexico- distilled spirits, which could also be marketed outside New Mexico, he said.
Soules said his pub license bill also could be “a huge shot in the arm” for the state’s restaurant industry, which he said “took a neutral stand” on
a similar bill he introduced during the 2015 legislative session. That bill died in committee, but did get a hearing, Soules said. “We were pleased it got so far; people started listening,” he said. “A lot more people are aware of it.”
And, while Soules acknowledged that some current liquor-license holders and “big-time money people who have invested” in the state’s current liquor license system may oppose his plan, he thinks it will draw bi-partisan support in the Legislature. And, Soules said he is hopeful that Martinez will support it because of its economic development value. State leaders recognize the need for liquor law reform, Soules said, and his proposal would offer “a simple solution (that is) completely under local control.” If local government didn’t opt for a pub-license district, “nothing changes,” he said. “This makes sense. This solves a problem without devaluing other licenses.”