How much political influence should you need to get a liquor license in Chicago?
The Chicago Sun-Times highlighted the role of “clout” in helping Pete’s Fresh Market, a grocery chain opening a new location on Chicago’s underserved West Side, get one. On its face, the article is a critique of how well-connected people use political ties to circumvent the law, but what it also shows is how state and local governments hold far too much power over personal and business decisions.
Pete’s Fresh Market recently opened a new shopping center in a “food desert,” a neighborhood where residents lack access to fresh produce, and wanted a liquor license for the new location. But Illinois’ Liquor Control Act bans alcohol sales within 100 feet of churches, and the new Pete’s is 75 feet away from one. Thinking, like most property owners, that they should have the right to sell whatever they want on their own land, they sought an exemption from the Act.
One shouldn’t need to support any politician for the right to effectively operate a business. But state law has put entrepreneurs in a position where they must do that in order to get things done. Pete’s owner James Dremonas worked with Alderman Ed Burke and his brother, State Rep. Dan Burke, to get an exemption, as did a number of other businesses.
Until Gov. Pat Quinn signs the exemption into law, the City of Chicago has given Pete’s a provisional liquor license so it can sell alcoholic goods now. But even getting this depends on having the support of your local alderman. Because of aldermanic privilege, aldermen can often control what businesses will be allowed to open in their wards and what licenses a business can receive. Luckily for Pete’s, Alderman Walter Burnett lifted a moratorium on liquor sales in the ward months ago, allowing the license to be granted.
But this story may have turned out much differently had the store’s owner not made the right relationships with or contributions to the right people, or had a lobbyist to help push the issue on his behalf. Is this how businesses should have to operate in Illinois?
What’s the solution? First off, rolling back overreaching state laws must be a part of any serious reform, because overregulation incentivizes this sort of lobbying to begin with. One can take issue with a law that restricts alcohol sales based on geography and, to be sure, the Illinois Liquor Control Act is in need of serious reforms for more than one reason.
But even better would be a system that had both a light regulatory touch and separated business regulation from political influence altogether. This could involve allowing self-permitting for more businesses and streamlining the permitting process to reduce average wait times, which would curb the need to ask legislators for favors in the first place.
Government shouldn’t be deciding on a case-by-case basis which businesses should be subject to which laws and which get a pass. It invites arbitrary decision making and corruption. When politicians are allowed such extensive control over the fate of a business, lobbying them for favors and exceptions is inevitable.