LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Near Arkansas' state Capitol, a billboard erected by opponents of a ballot measure to legalize alcohol sales statewide doesn't warn voters about potential dangers of expanded drinking. Instead, it tells them to vote to "keep tax dollars here."
The sign shows the dilemma opponents of the alcohol measure face as they near the November election: How do you win support from voters in a state where beer, wine and liquor are no longer viewed as taboo? The answer is to make the fight about the economy and local control, not one casting alcohol as the villain.
With church groups and other traditional foes of alcohol sales taking a lower-key approach, the fight against the proposed constitutional amendment to do away with the state's "dry" counties has instead fallen upon a group financed partly by liquor stores. The group is trying to connect with voters who may not have a moral objection to drinking.
The chairman of Citizens for Local Rights says its billboard arguing the measure will hurt wet counties is a small part of its larger case against the amendment. By making all 75 of the state's counties wet, he argues, the proposal is taking away the rights of citizens to decide whether to live in counties where alcohol sales are legal.
"This amendment really doesn't have as much to do about alcohol as it does in setting a dangerous precedent regarding local rights," said Brian Richardson, chairman of Citizens for Local Rights, the group campaigning against the measure. "That's something people are responding to passionately."
It's also something that may appeal more widely in a state where alcohol is more than widely available in half the counties. Thirty-seven of Arkansas' 75 counties are currently "dry," meaning the sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited, except under certain laws, such as those allowing for private clubs.
While Richardson's group is readying a full-scale campaign that will include radio and television spots, he's also fighting the measure on the legal front with a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court. The lawsuit is trying to get the proposal kicked off the November ballot, arguing the state used the wrong deadline in accepting petitions.
Supporters of expanded alcohol sales say they welcome the economic argument and argue there's a danger of the group's tax argument backfiring. David Couch, head of Let Arkansas Decide, said the sign warning of a loss in tax revenue to wet counties shows dry counties what they're missing by not legalizing alcohol.
"(Liquor stores) don't want to lose their monopoly," Couch said. "All of the other counties want to be involved in the impact it will have."
The proposal also faces a more low-profile campaign from conservative Christian groups that have traditionally resisted efforts to legalize alcohol sales in dry counties. The Family Council said it will be forming a committee to oppose the measure, but doesn't plan to take the lead on the effort.
The Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council is focusing on its grassroots network among churches around the state to rally opposition to the expanded alcohol measure, said Director Larry Page. The group is also embracing the local control argument as something that will speak to a wider audience than a strictly anti-alcohol campaign.
"Our point is the argument for local control is something that could appeal to a drinker in a wet county if he just stops and thinks about it," Page said.
Couch, however, says the obstacles put up for groups trying to legalize alcohol sales in counties undermine that argument. Calling a local option election on alcohol sales requires signatures from 38 percent of a county's registered voters, a bar that makes such a vote nearly impossible, he says.
"Local option is really no option," he said.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo
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