Sunday, January 14, 2001

In an editorial in its Tuesday editions, The Washington Post urged Mayor Williams to veto legislation passed last month that overhauls the District’s liquor laws, including a provision that repeals the ban on liquor licenses on strip clubs. “A mayoral signature,” The Post argued, “would be a green light for a new red-light district downtown. It would reverse the progress that has been made in the central business district. If ever a bill deserved to be vetoed, this is it.” Ditto that perspective.

However, if the bill that reaches the mayor stands as is, because the council does have an opportunity to retain the moratorium on nude bars, there is an even better reason for the mayor to veto it. The legislation would separate Alcohol Beverage Control from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and create a new agency. In fact, that is the centerpiece of the legislation. The last thing the D.C. government needs and the business industry wants is more red tape.

D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose, chairman of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said the main reason she drafted the legislation was to help the community fight irresponsible ABC licensees. While some of the provisions in the legislation do just that, D.C. lawmakers could have achieved the same end by leaving ABC precisely where it is.

Like most other city agencies, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) underwent considerable reform. Unlike some of the other agencies, however, DCRA, which handles permits, licensing and housing, health and building code issues, really cut some red tape. Creating a separate ABC agency would move the city in the opposite direction.

Besides, the ABC Board really and truly does not have much of a mandate, and has worked fairly as well under the auspices of DCRA. ABC’s primary responsibilities are the issuance of licenses for and regulation of establishments that buy and sell alcoholic beverages. At present that includes about a dozen establishments that feature nude dancing. The primary argument against such establishments is they draw degenerates and criminals, and create the potential for street-level prostitution, vice and organized crime. All good reasons to retain a moratorium.

“I am disappointed,” Mrs. Ambrose told this page on Tuesday, about the debate caused by “one tiny little provision (on nude dancing) in a bill that is out 100 pages when those other pages are going to make a huge difference.” Then again, Mrs. Ambrose started the debate in the first place.

Heavy lobbying from special interests including businesses and law-enforcement, religious and homosexual organizations prevented unanimity for or against the legislation. Council members exercised their legislative prerogatives and proposed all manner of amendments to try to reconstruct the bill. Some passed, and some failed. Nonetheless, what appears to be headed toward the mayor’s desk is legislation that defies his mandate from voters to trim the bureaucracy and that arguably questions the moral vision of his administration. The mayor should do the right thing. Veto the ABC bill.

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