Archive for Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Opinion: Rural heritage still with us

Liquor laws defy explanation

May 28, 2003

Explaining Kansas liquor laws is no job for the faint of heart -- nor, especially, for the easily confused. Before you get very far in the exercise, you find yourself like the fellow Mark Twain wrote about who, having blundered his way into a convoluted French sentence, began to wonder whether he would ever get out of it alive.

The thing to remember is that Kansas liquor laws at their core date back to the time when the Kansas Legislature was a bastion of rural conservatism, reflecting the mores of a people who, even though many lived in towns, were at most one generation removed from the farm, and still deeply suspicious of city ways.

At periodic intervals before the state constitution was finally changed in 1986, Kansas voted on, first, selling liquor at all, and then, once that finally passed, on liquor by the drink. Time after time, even though many--if not most--were at the least no stranger to John Barleycorn, Kansans said no to liquor by the drink.

Many years earlier, this propensity to vote dry in the face of other well established proclivities prompted William Allen White to write that Kansans would vote dry "as long as they could stagger to the polls to vote at all."

A 1948 constitutional amendment forever banned that most vile of dens of iniquity, corruption, depravation and despair, the open saloon. There the matter rested for many years. Carrie Nation would have been proud.

Until the mid-1960s, Kansans who wished to belly up to the bar and order a drink could only do so in a tavern -- and their choice of libation was limited to cereal malt beverages of no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

In 1965 the Legislature authorized the sale of liquor in private clubs, institutions where one supposedly kept one's own liquor or wine in a little locker, which the bartender used to supply your table. This was devilishly inconvenient -- suppose, for example, you decided at the last minute to order the fish but forgot to bring a bottle of white wine? But it was more than simply inconvenient. It was surpassingly hypocritical. The private club laws were routinely winked at or ignored altogether.

Finally, it was the economic issue that won the day. Kansas could never have a mature hospitality industry, the argument ran, so long as it was impossible for a person dining in that state to have a drink before a meal or a glass of wine with dinner. This was deemed particularly true in areas such as our own, with their close proximity to states like Missouri with more relaxed attitudes towards demon rum.

Lest you think we have come too far, it is well to remember that liquor by the drink is still prohibited in 39 of 105 Kansas counties. Fifty-three counties allow liquor by the drink in establishments that derive at least 30 percent of their revenue from food sales. The remaining 13 counties, including Wyandotte, permit the sale of liquor by the drink with no food sales restrictions.

This is, admittedly, a rather roundabout introduction to the question of whether to allow the Sunday sales of package liquors, approved this week in Bonner Springs and tabled in Basehor. The truth is, we hold no particular brief or deep-seated conviction with respect to Sunday sales. Yet, it seems to us that, if the act is to be permitted at all, surely the day on which it is done is of lesser importance.

The economic argument may yet be the telling one: why should we handicap our merchants by forcing them to close their doors one day a week?

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