by Justin Trent
With the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverages Control in the news again, residents of Virginia have another opportunity to ask their elected officials why the Commonwealth of Virginia holds a monopoly over an entire industry. In addition, small government conservatives should consider whether the continued existence of Virginia ABC proves that the Virginia GOP is just another big government party.
As readers may know, Virginia ABC was established in response to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The agency was given a monopoly over the sale of distilled spirits and it controls the distribution of alcoholic beverages (which means that it controls the selection of beers and wines available to Virginia consumers). It was given full police powers in 1936. Those powers landed the agency in hot water in recent years with its agents’ arrest of University of Virginia students.
As a native-born Virginian, I have always been told that the Virginia GOP is the political party that supports the free market and defends against government overreach. Imagine my confusion, then, at the unwillingness of General Assembly Republicans to dismantle the Virginia ABC when they had the chance.
I decided to look back through history and see if the Virginia GOP has ever had am opportunity chance to privatize Virginia ABC without the need for bipartisan support. (Some Democrats have supported privatization in the past, but for the sake of this exercise I assumed that all Virginia Democrats support the existence of Virginia ABC.) Because of the shift in party alignment in the early 1970s, I started by identifying the Republican governors who have held office since the 1970s: Mills Godwin (’74-’78), John Dalton (’78-’82), George Allen (’94-‘98), Jim Gilmore (’98-’02) and Bob McDonnell (’10-’14). During the terms of Godwin, Dalton, and Allen, the Virginia Democrats controlled at least one house in the General Assembly; as a result, I give both those governors and the Virginia GOP a pass on the assumption that Virginia Democrats would have blocked privatization. But what about the Gilmore and McDonnell eras?
It turns out that the Virginia GOP had control of both the governor’s mansion and the General Assembly during the General Assembly sessions held in 2000, 2001, 2012, and 2013. They could have passed a bill privatizing the Virginia ABC if they had really wanted – and there is evidence that at least some Republicans in the General Assembly were in support of privatization during those windows of opportunity.
Here’s a short breakdown of the attempts to privatize Virginia ABC:
- In 1995, John Watkins (R) and Harry Purkey (R) sponsored bills.
- In 1996 and 1997, a similar bill was sponsored by William P. Robinson, Jr., a Democrat.
- From 2002 through 2005, Allen Louderback (R) sponsored a privatization bill in each session. Frank Hargrove (R) co-sponsored Louderback’s bill in 2005.
- In 2006 and 2007, there were no bills.
- In 2008, Bob Marshall (R) and David Poisson (D) both sponsored privatization bills.
- In 2009, Poisson sponsored his bill again and Purkey sponsored a bill that called for a study of privatization.
- In 2010, Marshall sponsored his bill again and Purkey sponsored his study bill again. Mark Obenshain (R) also sponsored a bill in the Senate.
- In 2011, Obenshain and Watkins sponsored a bill in the Senate, while Robert Brink (D) sponsored a bill in the House.
So, what about those brief windows in 2000, 2001, 2012, and 2013, when the Virginia GOP was in power? It turns out that no privatization bills were sponsored during those years. None. How strange – especially when you consider that Watkins, Purkey, Marshall, Louderback, and Hargrove were all in office during 2000 and 2001, and Obenshain, Marshall, and Purkey were all in office during 2012 and 2013. In other words, the same Republicans who pushed privatization when the Democrats held a crucial office were quiet when their own party held all the cards.
Marshall and Obenshain are well-known for their “small government” bona fides. But where were their principles, when they had the opportunity to enact real change and privatize the sale of alcoholic beverages? And what about all of the other conservative state legislators who served at those times but didn’t push for privatization?
There are two answers, neither of which should be acceptable to small government conservatives: Either the Virginia GOP is addicted to the revenue provided Virginia ABC (a criticism that is frequently leveled at Democrats) or the Virginia GOP is a party that only provides lip service to the ideal of “limited government.”
Justin Trent lives in the Richmond region.