LITTLE ROCK — A push for local elections on whether to allow alcohol sales in three dry Arkansas counties recently fell short in two of the counties, but the chairman of a group pushing for statewide alcohol sales says he is not discouraged by that development.
The president of a Christian conservative group says the failed efforts in Craighead and Faulkner counties show that support for expanding alcohol sales may be weaker than even he had believed.
On Thursday, the group Our Community, Our Dollars announced that it was unable to collect enough signatures to place on the ballot proposals to allow alcohol sales in Craighead and Faulkner counties, although its effort to do the same in Saline County was successful.
Meanwhile, the group Let Arkansas Decide is collecting signatures in support of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow alcohol sales in all 75 Arkansas counties. The state now has 38 wet counties and 37 dry counties, but private clubs can obtain permits to serve alcohol in dry counties.
David Couch, chairman of Let Arkansas Decide, said Friday he is “100 percent” confident the proposed amendment will get on the Nov. 4 ballot and be approved by voters.
The group’s initial submission of signatures last month was deemed by the secretary of state’s office to be about 17,000 short of the 78,133 signatures of registered Arkansas voters needed to place the measure on the ballot, but supporters qualified for an additional 30 days to collect more signatures.
“At this point I probably have 30,000-plus signatures, more like 35,000,” Couch said Friday. “We validate every signature, so when I say we have enough, I know we have enough.”
Couch said the group’s signature-gathering efforts have drawn opposition in only a handful of counties. Many see allowing alcohol sales as a way to boost the local economy, he said.
Couch said he believes the efforts of Our Community, Our Dollars failed in Craighead and Faulkner counties failed because of an unreasonably high signature requirement for wet-dry county proposals — 38 percent of the registered voters in the county — as well as opposition from county-line liquor stores that benefit from being adjacent to dry counties.
Some liquor stores are opposing Let Arkansas Decide’s proposal as well. The Arkansas Beverage Retailers Association is a backer of Let Local Communities Decide for Themselves, a ballot question committee formed to oppose the measure. The committee has alleged that Let Arkansas Decide missed a signature deadline and has threatened to file a lawsuit over the matter.
Couch said he understands if people oppose statewide alcohol sales because of their moral beliefs, but he said the opposition from some liquor stores is purely about “preventing competition.”
Jim Phillips, Kent Starr and Al Young, all of whom are listed in the Arkansas Beverage Retailers Association’s articles of incorporation as officers in the organization, did not immediately return phone and email messages Friday seeking comment.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, which opposes expanding alcohol sales, said the failure of efforts in support of wet-dry votes in Craighead and Faulkner counties surprised him, especially because the efforts were well funded.
“The fact that they couldn’t even pay canvassers to gather enough signatures must indicate that there was a lot less local support for it than I thought there was,” he said, adding that the outcome in those counties may have implications for the measure on statewide alcohol sales.
“I think most people in Arkansas like the status quo,” Cox said.
Cox said he is not convinced that allowing alcohol sales is good for the economy. He said one has to “turn that coin over and look at the other side,” which he said would include increased crime, lowered property values as new bars open in neighborhoods, and lives lost because of drunken driving.
The latter issue in particular hits home for Cox, whose father, Vaughn Cox, was killed when an intoxicated driver crashed into his car in Little Rock in the 1980s.
“He never got to see his grandkids grow up,” Cox said. “There are things more important than the economy.”
Let Arkansas Decide has until Aug. 18 to turn in additional signatures.