By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Lawmakers desperate for ways to slash state spending may wield the budget ax against ALE — North Carolina’s 112-officer agency that specializes in Alcohol Law Enforcement. Eliminating ALE, which could save an estimated $9.5 million, is one of nearly 75 budget cutting options being considered by the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety and among the worst ideas on the list, according to those in the public health arena.
“Laws we have on the books are only as strong as the enforcement we put behind them,” said Dylan Mulrooney-Jones with the N.C. Substance Abuse Prevention Providers Association. “The elimination of ALE, a dedicated alcohol enforcement agency, would be a giant step backwards for the prevention of underage and other alcohol related consequences in the state.”
Phil Mooring, executive director of Families in Action, agreed.
“ALE agents work to support local efforts to curb underage alcohol use and are often partners in community anti-drug coalitions,” he said. “In recent days, ALE agents cited more than 60 at an East Carolina University fraternity party, arrested five individuals in a cigarette scheme that was costing North Carolina tax revenue, arrested 35 in a major drug network in Winston-Salem and assisted State Capitol Police in a drug take-back, helping reduce the availability of prescribed medications that could have ended up being abused by children and youth.”
In addition to enforcing the broad range of alcohol related legislation, from shipping and transport rules to dram shop laws, ALE is involved in hundreds of controlled substance cases each year, conducts thousands of ABC permit investigations, probes gambling and gang activity and plays a role in lottery enforcement, bingo game operations and boxing licensing. Last year agents made 10,334 arrests, with nearly 60 percent of them involving alcohol related violations and another 25 percent dealing with controlled substances and tobacco.
The state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Commission relies heavily on ALE.
“Without the services of the roughly 100 agents of Alcohol Law Enforcement, it would be impossible for the ABC Commission to make an informed decision about the suitability of many applicants for ABC permits,” said Agnes Stevens, the Commission’s Public Affairs Director. “ALE agents not only provide the investigations for all permit applicants, they routinely monitor businesses that hold permits (there are roughly 17,000 in NC) to make sure that they are complying with the alcohol laws and regulations of the state — and in doing so they protect the health and safety of our state’s residents.”
“Careful thought should be given to the consequences of eliminating this important specialized agency charged specifically with enforcing the state’s alcohol laws and regulations,” she added.
Mark Senter, ALE’s deputy director for administration, said “uniform and consistent enforcement of ABC laws throughout the state,” would suffer without ALE. He said without the routine checks that officers do at ABC permitted establishments (nearly 11,000 last year), businesses that are inclined to violate alcohol rules will feel they can do so without repercussions.
Beyond the investigations and routine checks, ALE also conducts BARS (Be A Responsible Seller) training for permittees and their employees to head off violations. During 2010, 291 such programs were conducted for 905 retail businesses including more than 4,300 trainees. ALE also presented more than 50 Keys to Life programs at high schools and colleges, reaching 6,400 students with a message about the potential dangers of underage drinking. Further, every time there is an alcohol-related traffic fatality in the state, ALE investigates to determine where the alcohol came from and if laws were broken.
Lawmakers have told the media that eliminating ALE is just one of many proposals they may consider as they try to close the state’s $2.4 billion budget gap. Some $230 million in cuts is set to come from justice and public safety programs. However, the $9.5 million savings estimate for eliminating ALE does not include the cost of shifting these duties elsewhere, although there has been mention of the possibility of assigning some tasks to ABC, to the State Bureau of Investigation or to local law enforcement departments.
“None of these ideas are realistic in terms of manpower, or knowledge and expertise in ABC laws,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “The enforcement of these laws is simply too important to be left to chance.”
Officers who complete the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training receive just four hours of instruction on alcohol law. Beyond the basic training, ALE agents, who have statewide jurisdiction, complete the agency’s own 12-week program followed by another 12 weeks of field training. The added instruction benefits local law enforcement agencies who often call on ALE for assistance and ABC, who relies on ALE for help with its “Last Call” initiative. The program addresses repeated incidents of violence at permitted establishments.
“ALE provides statewide expertise to local law enforcement to prepare the applications to our office and evaluate the merits,” ABC Chairman Jon Williams told members of the House Commerce Committee in early March. “Since I became chair we have suspended a dozen permits on this basis.”
Williams told the committee that he had been shocked to find that “we have potentially lethal stabbings and shootings occurring in ABC-permitted clubs almost every weekend somewhere in North Carolina,” which he said is the 12th largest liquor market in the country.
“Already there is significant violence and crime associated with alcohol abuse in North Carolina, but it is nothing compared to what it will be if we do away with ALE,” said the Rev. Creech. “Lawmakers must find a way to keep this agency intact.”
Stevens pointed out that funds should be available.
“For many years ALE’s budget was designed to be funded by the application and renewal fees paid for by permits,” she said. “Those fees still generate over $14 million per year, more than ALE’s budget.”
Both Mooring and Mulrooney-Jones suggested that lawmakers look to alcohol taxes to bring in needed cash.
“If legislators would like to generate revenue in a way that would not increase harm to the public’s health in the process, they should turn their attention to an increase in the state’s malt beverage tax,” Mooring said. “A tax that has been eroded by inflation over the past 42 years and stands at less than 15 percent of its original, inflation-adjusted value. A 10-cent per 12 ounce increase in the malt beverage tax would generate between $150 and $200 million and, if reflected in the retail price of the product, would reduce underage drinking by 5 percent statewide.”
But Rev. Creech says that taxes of any kind at this point in time are clearly off the table. “The current political environment and the ‘no tax’ promises lawmakers have made to their constituents make that option highly unlikely,” he says. “Though I greatly sympathize with the burden lawmakers are feeling in having to make cuts, we need to remember that government’s primary responsibility is to judge and suppress evil. Few things are as threatening to the public’s life, liberty and property as the crime and corruption that surrounds alcohol. Regardless of how badly cuts need to be made, I just don’t think we need to be cutting law enforcement – period. More specifically, we don’t need to be cutting the specialized law enforcement that ALE provides in curtailing the negative affects of alcohol abuse. Local law enforcement or another division of state government cannot do what ALE does as well as they do it. I believe that if lawmakers will look long and hard enough, they can find the cuts or the needed revenue to keep ALE.”