Rolling back the nanny state Live free and pay more tax
The need for revenue has encouraged cash-strapped state and local governments to scrap restrictions on alcohol sales, gambling and even fireworks
LAST week the state of Washington began auctioning the licences to 167 of the liquor stores it runs. By June 1st Washington will be out of the liquor business altogether, freeing private businesses to sell spirits in the state for the first time since Prohibition. Last year, despite dire warnings about corporate profiteers, drunk drivers and surging policing costs, voters in the state approved the privatisation in a referendum by 59% to 41%. Something similar happened in Georgia on March 6th, when voters lifted the ban on sales of alcohol on Sundays in 24 of the 27 cities and counties that had put the issue on the ballot, alongside the state’s presidential primary. Since Georgia first allowed local governments to hold referendums on Sunday sales last year, voters have approved the practice in 129 out of 154 instances, often by huge margins. Last year in Texas, attempts to turn “dry” localities “wet” succeeded on 57 out of 64 occasions. In West Virginia meanwhile, the state legislature has just passed a bill allowing liquor stores to hold tasting sessions. It is the ninth state to approve such a measure since 2009. “The world is getting wetter,” exults Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), an industry group. It is not just drinkers who are benefiting from a loosening of puritanical regulations around America. Massachusetts last year became the 24th state to allow casinos in some form. Ohio did the same in 2009, and Maryland did in 2008. Maine, not to be outdone, has just issued its first casino licence, and also lifted a ban on fireworks at the beginning of the year. Rhode Island legalised fireworks in 2010, and will hold a referendum in November about expanding gambling. This trend is not, sadly, the result of a sudden renunciation of paternalism by state governments. Rather, it stems from the states’ dire fiscal straits in the aftermath of the recession. “States are looking for a source of revenue beyond [directly] taxing their residents,” says Holly Wetzel of the American Gaming Association, which represents gambling interests. Mandy Rafool of the National Conference of State Legislatures puts it more bluntly: “States have been so desperate over the last few years that they’re looking at everything.”
Mar 17th 2012 | www.economist.com
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