Virginia GOP Flunks the ABC Test


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.

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17 responses to “Virginia GOP Flunks the ABC Test”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    you don’t have to have state alcohol stores to get the tax revenues..

    scratch that part…and focus on the real issue – that has nothing what-so-ever to do with “liberal” thinking.

    My impression is that Liberals would wholeheartedly support selling liquor from non-state stores…

    this is owned by the GOP – lock, stock and barrel…. so it gets tiresome when everything from bad breath to nose hair gets blamed on “liberal”.

    everyone knows what the state sells alcohol. It’s the very same reason why Va had Blue Laws and why Va would not let private stores sell pot – and it had nothing to do with “liberals”… and everything to do with Conservatives.

    1. I believe DJ Spiker over at BearingDrift would qualify as a conservative:

      1. And … a couple of Republican legislators help show that the Repubs are fine with big government if it provides a tiny weeny advantage to them:

    2. Er, Larry, the word “liberal” never appears in this op-ed. It is an indictment of the GOP. What’s your point?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        nice try Jim – but you essentially did:

        ” I decided to look back through history and see if the Virginia GOP has ever had an 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.) ”

        why did you assume that? The Dems would stand in the way? Why?

        the other thing I do not get is why there is a view that you have to have State Stores in order to collect tax.

        This is EASY to do . You let private stores sell it – with the same tax levied … and inevitably you’d collect far more tax…

        who in Va – what party is more likely to vote in favor of liquor by the drink?

        all this talk about the “free market” and top-down govt “regulation”.. and the folks who claim the boni fides are the ones that keep this from happening.

        Does ANYONE HERE… REALLY THINK – you’d have to FIGHT THE DEMs to get their vote?


        1. You need to direct your comments to the author of the article. Justin Trent.

          However, I will address one point. You wrote:

          “Does ANYONE HERE… REALLY THINK – you’d have to FIGHT THE DEMs to get their vote?”

          Gee, I don’t remember Democrats going to bat in favor of McDonnell’s plan to privatize the ABC. As I recall, they were largely opposed. Please correct me if my memory fails me.

        2. Justin Trent Avatar
          Justin Trent

          Larry –

          Author of the article here. I think that you agree with my general point, which is that the Virginia GOP has opposed privatization despite the party’s “small government” principles.

          For purposes of the article, I wanted to ignore the effect of the Virginia Democrats and see if there has ever been a time when the Virginia GOP could have unilaterally dismantled Virginia ABC but did not. The easiest way to ignore the position of the Virginia Democrats is to assume that they all oppose privatization, which is not actually true. There are certainly some Virginia Democrats who support privatization – perhaps a majority, I cannot say – but the focus of this article is on the Virginia GOP.

          I was not blaming the Democrats for the continued existence of the Virginia ABC. Sorry for that confusion.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            that clears it up. Thanks.

            Yes.. this is in the GOP”s court…

            I don’t think the Dems really give a fig to be honest.

            although if the GOP proposed to privatize liquor AND get rid of the liquor taxes – there probably would be some squealing from the political hog pen – blue and red.

            but yes – this is ALSO about REGULATION … that nasty ham-fisted stuff that Jim is always blaming on liberals!

            Thanks for the article!

  2. ” … Va would not let private stores sell pot …”

    OK – you got me with that one. Isn’t it because pot is illegal to possess or sell in Va? How is that any different from private stores selling heroin or live hand grenades?

    The issue is that the state monopolizes the sale of something that is perfectly legal.

    The reasons why the state does this boil down to three things – corruption, corruption and corruption.

    At the elected official level the corruption comes from being able to control what booze gets sold in Virginia along with being one of only six states that allows unlimited campaign contributions to politicians.

    However, there are rumors of corruption at the store level too.

    Sorry, LarryG – this has nothing to do with conservatives and liberals, it’s just the Virginia Way.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’m not advocating it – I’m pointing out which side of the political spectrum wants restrictions and controls at the same they blather incessantly about the “free market” and “libertarianism” which is rich with hypocrisy.

      you say corruption but isn’t it primarily the GOP that has had innumerable opportunities to make this a free market and has not?

      Do you think if a bill was put into the General Assembly to allow private stores to sell alcohol that Dems would oppose it?


      yes.. this IS about Va Conservatives.. no question about it.

      also.. I guess folks have forgotten Bob McDonnells initial Transportation funding debacle.. with the ABC stores, eh?

      Most “liberals” would undoubtedly and wholeheartedly support private stores selling alcohol. Of course they were the same ones who wanted Va to get rid of it’s “BLUE” laws which should have been called “RED” laws?


      Fess up Don – you KNOW this has all the earmarks of Conservative theology… and …hypocrisy -.. the “free market” .. and ABC stores!

    2. Justin Trent Avatar
      Justin Trent

      The issue is that the state monopolizes the sale of something that is perfectly legal.

      The reasons why the state does this boil down to three things – corruption, corruption and corruption.

      Author of the article here. I disagree that corruption is the root of Virginia ABC’s staying power. The consumption of alcohol has been a controversial topic in our country since colonial days, and the controversy is still alive and well. National prohibition was repealed in 1933, but a number of states continued with their own prohibition laws for decades afterwards; Mississippi was the last state to repeal its prohibition law in 1966. Even today, there is a significant percentage of Americans who oppose the consumption of alcohol. For example, a CNN poll in 2014 found that 18% of Americans believe that the use of alcohol should be illegal.

      Governor McDonnell tried to privatize Virginia ABC in the first two years of his tenure, but he failed. The reasons for opposing privatization were well-documented in news reports from that time. Lawmakers in both parties were concerned with the loss of revenue, while outside groups argued that there would be negative economic and/or health consequences if privatization occurred. The two sides argued whether prices would go up or down, whether tax revenue would offset the lost sales revenue, whether the rate of alcoholism would increase, whether drunk driving would increase, etc. McDonnell couldn’t navigate the mess, although he came close.

      Many of the opponents of privatization were religious groups or healthcare-related nonprofits and were not in a position to benefit financially from the Virginia ABC’s continued existence, which undercuts your assertion that corruption is to blame.

    3. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Wow. That is one serious allegation about store managers diverting scarce items to non ABC customers. If true and proven that might be the spark that starts the fire on this one. Too bad the news business is on life support…..

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: serious allegation.. agree…

        if it is true- then wow…. surprised nothing is being done about it.

        Has ABC responded to the allegation?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    here’s the simple truth -once again – dang hard to get that truth bell to ring here in BR sometimes!

    ” In his 2009 run for governor, Republican Bob McDonnell made privatization of Virginia’s 332 state-owned liquor stores (aka ABC stores) a feature of his successful campaign.

    However, some members of his own party expressed skepticism, opposed the plan and ultimately killed it.

    While some of their concerns were valid, such as the $17.50 per gallon liquor excise tax the McDonnell’s plan would have imposed, it was clear that for many opposing privatization the main concern was with the loss of revenue, estimated around $47 million a year. Now Albo, one of those objecting Republicans, wants to try to make the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which currently has a budget of more than $560 million, more profitable by requiring board members to have a business background.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    we have discussions on regulation – all the time – here – and how there is too much, it’s ham fisted, wrong-headed, kills jobs, hurts commerce, damages property-rights, bad breath – you name it.

    Here is an example of where regulation comes from:



    An American Civil Liberties Union review of local police and sheriff body camera usage found “an alarming lack of depth and uniformity” among departmental policies, the group said Monday. Among the issues flagged: Only 12 percent of departments responding to a Virginia ACLU survey prohibit camera use in private homes if a resident objects. Three percent require notice to people being recorded.”

    so here is my challenge this morning –

    for those who are opposed to regulation – defend not regulating this

    and a special challenge to my buddy Don – defend letting each locality handle this instead of Mr. Dillon and the Va Way GA incompetents.

    ok – now off to do your homework!

    I expect to see good quality debate.

    1. Policing is an inherent and legitimate function of government. Setting rules for how policemen conduct themselves and how to hold policemen accountable, therefore, is an inherent and legitimate function of government. I have no problem with the idea of government “regulating” body cameras — that’s no more than saying that government should set the rules for the police. Duh.

      The question here is *which level* of government should set the rules. On the one hand, you have the philosophy that government that is closest to the people (local government) should set the rules. Variable practices at the local level allows for experimentation and learning from the experience of others. On the other hand, you have the philosophy that there must be consistency; the rules must be established at the top. I believe that bottom-up is usually better than top-down. So, I’d oppose demands at this stage to establish uniformity.

      While this may be an interesting issue, however, it has very little applicability to government regulation of the private sector.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        how about drones?

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