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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Over the Limit

Santa Fe has 128 liquor licenses, nearly 300 percent over its quota

September 30, 2015, 12:00 am

It’s no secret that New Mexico has a drinking problem. Just a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that 51 of every 100,000 residents from the Land of Enchantment died from alcohol-related causes.

That’s more deaths per capita than any other state in the nation, a terrible distinction that New Mexico has held since 1997.

So look around you: There’s a reason why random DWI checkpoints pop up just about anywhere, any day. Or why the high desert landscape, with all its beauty, is littered with colorful crosses along its highways, byways and back roads, quite a few, no doubt, marking the spot where people died due to somebody driving drunk.

According to the CDC study, excessive drinking cut the life expectancy of New Mexicans by more than 30 years annually, contributing to 88,000 deaths a year between 2006 and 2010, mostly among middle-aged adults.

New Mexico’s Liquor Control Act says a city should have just one retail liquor licenses per 2,000 residents. For Santa Fe, that figure is 34. The city has 128.

Source: Tax and Revenue Department

Conversely, the state ranks fourth in the total percentage of underrage drinkers, behind only Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, according to the Santa Fe Prevention Alliance, which has been trying to put a dent in the problem with educational outreach.

But the inebriation continues, and the state Legislature has left the Liquor Control Act virtually untouched since 1981. Maybe it’s about time they reconsidered some changes.

Part of that state law stipulates that if a city wants to limit the number of liquor licenses bought and transferred to an outlet inside its boundaries, it can only do so by holding a special election.

As Maire Claire Voorhees, a communications director for Santa Fe Prevention Alliance, notes, it’s hard enough to get people out to the school board elections, let alone a measure that could hinder the convenience of buying booze. And even if a special election were to be held, there’s a good chance the liquor industry would be there waiting, fighting it at every turn, Voorhees says.

“It’s a powerful industry in our state,” she says. “It’s an industry that drives economics, and it has a lot of money to defeat these sorts of measures.”

Prevention advocates aren’t the lone voice in arguing that Santa Fe has too many liquor sales. The state itself established a quota of one retail liquor license per every 2,000 residents. Considering Santa Fe’s population, the city should have about 34 licenses.

Instead, it has 128 licenses, according to Ben Cloutier, a spokesman for the Alcohol and Gaming Division, a part of the New Mexico Taxation and Regulation Department.

Cloutier tells SFR that the state, as a whole, overruns the quotas in the 1981 law, and that it’s not just in Santa Fe where the limit has been exceeded.

About 1,411 “quota type licenses” are active in the state, he says; some of them were grandfathered in before the act.

“They are simply bought, sold and transferred around the state,” Cloutier adds.

All of this came to the fore a few weeks ago, when SFR reported that the Walmart at Cerrillos Road and Camino Consuelo, not to be outdone by the Supercenter Walmart at the far south end of town, applied for a liquor license of its own back in late August.

Now, the state plans to send Walmart’s application to the Santa Fe City Council, which will either give it the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down. But as City Councilor Joseph Maestas notes, it doesn’t really matter how the City Council votes, because in the end, the state can overturn the decision.

That’s exactly what happened to the Supercenter Walmart when it was first opening in 2011. The council denied the store a liquor license in March by a one-vote margin, and then the state issued the big-box store a permit anyway. Councilors said the inexpensive booze would find its way into the hands of minors. The state said that idea was unfounded.

That Walmart bought its liquor license from the Ore House for a little over $400,000. In this latest venture, the proposed license transfer comes from a liquor outlet in Las Cruces.

Councilor Carmichael Dominguez says if the city allows the transfer, he would like to see segregated sales at the Walmart—a separate area where there is only one way in and one way out. That way, if a minor is in the vicinity, it will be obvious.

Even if a special election isn’t on the horizon, that isn’t to say the city has not passed measures that try to limit the presence of alcohol. The recent prohibition on the sale of tiny bottles, set to take effect in the second week of October, is one example. It has also banned alcohol advertisements on marquees while making rules that keep liquor stores from being built right next to each other.

But even in the case of the “minis” ban, the law isn’t certain yet. Intended to rid the city landscape of litter from the small plastic bottles, the proposed law has been met with opposition by several liquor stores in the city.

On Oct. 6, a judge has scheduled a hearing on a lawsuit filed in state district court in which liquor store owners are contending the product is being wrongfully, and unconstitutionally, singled out.

Dominguez, whose District 3 along the Airport Road corridor has traditionally been on the city’s radar for problem drinking, says he hopes the court will decide in the city’s favor.

“I’m not a prohibitionist,” the 45-year-old councilor says. “I’m just for responsible drinking.”

But the city could find itself back in state district court, because if the council denies Walmart the upcoming license, and the state once again overturns it, then the only option is appealing it at the state level.

Or, as Voorhees points out, another possible solution to the inordinate amount of liquor licenses could be through a series of rezonings that would absolutely prohibit some in certain pockets, which could help reduce the number.

But that, like the special election, would be a labor-intensive endeavor.


 

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