Map of liquor sales laws by county. Source: Wikipedia
The passage of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution on Dec. 5, 1933, may have ended Prohibition on a national basis, but many municipalities across the country decided to remain dry. I grew up in a small town outside Philadelphia that had no liquor stores, no beer distributorships and no restaurants serving wine, beer or spirits. As a result, there also were no high-end restaurants, and those looking for work as servers, busboys or chefs had to go elsewhere.
Over the years, the number of dry towns has gradually decreased, a trend that continued this spring following elections in Texas and Pennsylvania. In Texas on May 11, citizens voted to allow alcohol sales in 18 out of 22 local elections. Plano, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas in one of the country’s fastest-growing counties, was the largest community to vote to go “wet,” and it did so with a 66% to 34% margin (12,325 votes in favor, 6,542 against). Allowing alcohol sales in Plano will mean the city sees more sales tax revenue that previously went to other communities, and it will allow area restaurants and bars more choices even if state law requires them to buy from in-county suppliers.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, since 2004 Texas voters have passed 509 out of 641 alcohol elections. “Prohibition-era laws don’t make sense in today’s economy, and that’s why voters across Texas are striking them down for good,” said council vice president Dale Szyndrowksi. “These elections reflect modern demographics, and we expect the trend will continue as voters and policymakers seek convenience and revenue, respectively.”
Preparing for privatization
In Pennsylvania, voters in three municipalities in Lancaster and York counties voted May 21 to allow the sale of alcohol. While Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to privatize state-owned liquor stores has not yet passed the Pennsylvania state Senate, the fact that privatization is on the table was incentive enough for some businesses to push for an end to local liquor bans. Dallastown and Dillsburg in York County voted to go “wet,” as did Pequea Township in Lancaster County.
The owners of a local beer distributorship in Lancaster County pushed for having the township change from dry to wet to be able to expand their businesses. If Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores were privatized, grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies and big-box stores would get the right to bid for licenses to sell beer and wine.
Change in liquor laws has come very slowly to Pennsylvania. In 2009, West Lampeter Township in Lancaster County and Warrington Township in York County were the first municipalities to vote to end liquor bans since the end of Prohibition in 1933. The lifting of the alcohol ban in West Lampeter was the result of economic incentives: The owners of the Willow Valley Resort wanted to bring in a DoubleTree Resort hotel, and local residents understood that allowing alcohol to be purchased and served locally could result in more jobs in the community.
Other alcohol restrictions are slowly being reversed as well. State legislatures in 16 states have passed bills since 2002 that allow for Sunday alcohol sales, the most recent being Connecticut, which approved Sunday sales last year.
Across the country, 33 states allow individual counties to ban liquor sales; in Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, all counties are dry unless a county specifically authorizes the sale of alcohol. Pennsylvania has no dry counties, but it does have a number of dry municipalities, while Texas has a patchwork of local restrictions in its 254 counties, including both wet and dry counties and a large number of partially dry (or “moist”) counties.