Raleigh, N.C. — Lawmakers need to dedicate more money to the North Carolina Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement if the state hopes to make a dent in problems such as underage drinking and violence at private clubs, the state's top alcohol enforcement officials told lawmakers Thursday.
"We've been underfunded for a number of years," said Jim Gardner, a former lieutenant governor who is now chairman of the three-member Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
The commission is responsible for issuing and revoking permits to sell alcohol. ALE is a separate statewide police agency under the Department of Public Safety.
Gardner and other ABC enforcement officials were speaking to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety, a panel that recommends changes to the state's criminal laws and law enforcement budget to the full General Assembly.
Statewide, ALE has 102 sworn officers, most of those dedicated to policing alcohol laws, although the agency is also charged with enforcing the lottery law, boxing rules and drug laws.
For the current budget year, legislators cut the agency's budget by $1.7 million, to $9.85 million. The ABC Commission gave the ALE $500,000 to help make up for that shortfall, with another $200,000 coming from the lottery commission. Combined, that $700,000 allowed the agency to keep 12 staff members, nine of those officers, employed.
Asked what would happen if the state was not able to provide that $700,000 going forward, ALE Director Gregory Baker said it would have "a catastrophic effect for our ability to execute our mission."
To cope with the cuts, Baker said, ALE has been forced to place more than one district office under a single field supervisor.
"That's problematic for us," he said.
Lawmakers peppered Baker and Gardner with questions. Rep. Jaime Boles, R-Moore, noted that local ABC boards that are overseen by the commission also help pay for law enforcement efforts.
"So, is it fair to say we don't just have 83 agents enforcing ABC laws?" Boles asked Baker.
Baker said that it was, but he could not give an exact number of local law enforcement dedicated to ABC enforcement.
Enforcement is different from county to county.
Some local boards create their own ABC police departments that do nothing except conduct inspections and investigate liquor-related crimes. In other counties, the boards contract with local police or sheriffs offices to provide extra enforcement of bars, restaurants and stores with ABC permits. Those local police agencies, Gardner said, often lack the expertise to enforce the state's complex liquor laws.
And, he noted, alcohol-related enterprises account for a $5 billion-a-year business in North Carolina, with some 18,000 retail locations holding more than 60,000 permits.
Other lawmakers were more sympathetic to Gardner's message, asking about new measures the state has taken to crack down on private clubs – bars that meet certain membership requirements – and underage drinking.
"We don't have to give anyone in the state of North Carolina a permit to sell alcohol," Gardner said.
Already, he said, the state has warned the owners of private clubs that they need to abide by rules that have existed for years but have been let slide recently. He added that he was considering instituting a three-month waiting period for those seeking new ABC permits. During that period, he said, the state would have time to conduct more thorough background checks.
But, he said, what the state really needs is more agents to help enforce existing laws and rules, particularly when it comes to underage drinking.
"Can we do it? Absolutely we can if we're wiling to put the resources into it," Gardner said."Talk is cheap, we're going to have to put some assets behind it."
Gardner suggested that lawmakers dedicate roughly $12 million raised from certain beer and wine permits to pay for ALE. This would boost ALE's budget and reduce year-to-year uncertainty he said.
"What better way to do it than take the source of some of the problem and turn it into the solution?" he said.
Since Republicans took over the General Assembly, lawmakers have moved away from dedicating sources of revenue to specific programs, as Gardner suggests. Instead, as part of an effort to make sure all spending is reviewed every year, budget-writers have preferred to sweep all revenue into a single "general fund" pot and then allocate budgets from there.