Public Safety No Longer Controls Alcohol

The Legislature has decided that regulating alcohol should no longer be the job of the Department of Public Safety.   The Alcohol Beverage Control Board was transferred to the Department of Commerce in a bill that the governor signed earlier this month.

Seen primarily as a source of state revenue since statehood, the board was housed in the Department of Revenue until Governor Frank Murkowski moved it by administrative order to the Department of Public Safety in 2003.

Anchorage Republican Mike Hawker sponsored the latest move,  saying  the new executive spot in  Commerce addresses some important issues.  He says alcohol needs regulating for administrative, licensing and compliance activities.

All three of those need a balanced approach to managing the industry. Under the Department of Public Safety, it was purely a law enforcement standpoint, and there was a lot of difficulty for the industry in managing the ongoing routine business activities of administration and licensing.

Hawker says the duties of the A-B-C board will not change with the move.  It will have the same functions in dealing with an industry where most of the vendors are legal.  He says the Department of Commerce will reflect a more appropriate balance.

When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,  when the agency was housed in the Department of Public Safety,  every alcohol vendor looked like a potential criminal who had not been caught yet.  And that was just the wrong way to approach a legal industry – albeit an industry that has its problems.

Hawker says the state’s laws against bootlegging, underage drinking, and selling without a license will still be enforced by Public Safety officers.

It’s really a step backwards in the effort to improve the health and safety of this state.

That’s Matt Felix, the Executive Director of the National Council on alcoholism and drug dependence in Juneau.  He says the industry’s interest in moving the Board comes after just a few years of heightened law  enforcement efforts.  And he says those efforts were showing positive results in controlling some of the biggest problems of alcohol misuse

It was obviously a dumbing down of the A-B-C Board and their effectiveness as a regulator on the industry, and that’s what the industry was after.  There was no need for it, they’re fairly toothless as it is, the statutes are old and out of date, and the liquor industry had its way.

Felix says before the move, the Board had the weight of the entire Public Safety establishment to motivate enforcement efforts.   Under commerce, he doesn’t anticipate the same success in controlling misuse of alcohol.

Anchorage Republican Anna Fairclough voted against the change,  saying her final decision came down to the improvements she had seen in alcohol misuse.  She thought there was a positive effect in the direct relationship between law enforcement and the industry’s managers.   As the former director of the Standing Together Against Rape crisis intervention center,  she said she is cautious about moving away from law enforcement.

As for the future,  Fairclough says it’s now up to the legislature to make sure that law enforcement has the resources it needs to continue the good work it’s been doing.
The Alcohol Beverage Board knows that we’re watching.  It wasn’t a unanimous decision by the legislature to move it, and we’re going to be watching.  And we want to make sure that there is no reduction in enforcement and the communication remains high between Public Safety, between Commerce and between the people that have licenses to sell this particular product.

Hawker says he has already discussed with the governor the option of moving the regulation back to Public Safety in the event the move proves to have negative effects.