Herman: It’d be much simpler if we just brought back Prohibition

Sept 08, 2018
Arianna Auber
Texas has 55 completely wet counties and six counties in which “no sales of alcoholic beverages are legal anywhere in the county.” The liquor laws are complicated in the other 193 counties. ARIANNA AUBER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The good people (and the other ones) of Round Rock have a big ol’ ballot-box decision to make on Nov. 6. It involves a little something I pejoratively refer to as “the alkyhol.”

In the next installment of a time-honored, yet bizarre, Texas tradition, Round Rockers (Round Rockians? Round Rockites?) will be holding a local option election on whether to allow the citywide sale of mixed beverages.

Looks like that as a result of annexations, such beverages are verboten in about 20 percent of the city, which means some establishments have to go through the private-club charade to sell you a mixed drink. The Round Rock Chamber, pitching it as “an economic and business climate fairness issue,” led the petition drive to get the issue on the ballot.

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The chamber reports that since Prohibition, an era I like to call “The Golden Age,” there have been at least 22 local option elections in Round Rock involving the alkyhol. The Big One seems to have been in 1983 when thirsty locals OK’d all alcohol sales within the then-city limits. In 2002, voters approved alcohol sales in Round Rock restaurants, leading, one would hope, to the sale of drinks on the round rocks.

There’s something endlessly fascinating about wet/dry elections, an ultimate form of local control in a state where state lawmakers let the locals pick their poisons but overrule local control on such things as plastic bags, ride sharing, annexation and driving while yakking on the cell phone.

I love this Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission historical note on two wet-dry elections in Goodlow, a city of about 200 residents in Navarro County (Corsicana is the county seat). In March 1997, Goodlow voters faced this issue at the polls: “Prohibiting the legal sale of all alcoholic beverages, including mixed beverages.”

Says TABC: “The issue failed by a vote of 38 for and 63 against.” But in 1999, the issue returned to the ballot and passed 64-63. Looks like the “fors” did a better job of getting their voters out, while the “againsts” got the same 63 folks to return to the polls.

Quick, personal flashback: I’d never been in Texas prior to arriving in Lufkin for the 1975 job interview than led to my first newspaper job. After being shown around the quintessentially East Texas city, Joe Murray, then-editor of the Lufkin Daily News, told me he was about to offer me a job.

But first, he said, he had to tell me something about his small town. It sounded like he was headed for a big reveal about something like Lufkin being a enclave of devil-worshippers. I was wrong.

“Ken,” my future boss said, “this is a dry county.”

I’d never heard the phrase and it raised immediate concerns. I think an occasional and drenching rain is helpful. Murray explained what dry meant in this context. Not being a fan of the alkyhol, I was glad to hear the explanation and gladly took the job.

The most recent wet/dry rundown on the TABC website is from November 2017. It’s complicated, billed as “a list of completely wet and completely dry counties. All other counties are a combination of wet and dry areas.”

The list includes 55 wet counties alphabetically, Aransas through Zavala, in which “all alcoholic beverage sales are legal everywhere in the county.” Around here, those counties include Burnet, Comal, Fayette, Gonzales, Guadalupe and San Saba.

And there were six counties in which “no sales of alcoholic beverages are legal anywhere in the county.” My congratulations to the right-thinking folks in those right-thinking counties: Hemphill, Kent, Martin, Roberts, Throckmorton and Borden. (There’s something so right about alkyhol sales being illegal in Borden County.)

Reviewing here: There are 55 wet counties and six dry counties. That accounts for 61 of our 254 counties, which means it gets real complicated real fast in 193 counties, including the ones in which most American-Statesman readers reside. (Back in 2003 there were 35 completely wet counties and 51 completely dry counties.)

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From TABC: “Although the laws regulating the alcoholic beverage industry are consistent statewide, the Alcoholic Beverage Code allows local determination of the types of alcoholic beverages which may be sold and how they can be sold by means of local option elections. Elections can be held by counties, cities or individual justice of the peace precincts.”

And keep this TABC caveat in mind: “Please note that an area annexed to a city may assume the same or certain privileges regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages if certain, and very specific, conditions are met.”

The most recent TABC map shows Travis, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell and Bastrop counties as “partially wet.” And TABC helpfully points out the 10 issues on which a community can vote in determining local alcohol rules, including “the legal sale of beer for off-premise consumption only” and “the legal sale of wine on the premises of a holder of a winery permit.”

Ok. So let’s see what applies where. TABC has a handy spreadsheet for that. The May 2018 version has 2,431 lines telling you what you can and can’t buy where. Lines 2,174 to 2,195 tell you what’s legal in various parts of Travis County. Lines 2,346 to 2,364 do the same for various locations in Williamson County.

And if this level of detail isn’t enough, there are notes, some are as simple as this one for Cherokee County: “Only Troup is wet.”

Some are a little thicker: “Edwards County is ‘wet’ for the sale of all alcoholic beverages, except mixed beverages, in all parts of the county except within the boundaries of old JP Precinct 2 as it existed on 09/26/1936.”

And there’s this one: “Anderson County and JP precincts partially wet by virtue of local option in city of Palestine. All JP precincts had slice of city at time of election. City, however, has local ordinance that will only permit licensed establishments in certain portions of town. Hence, while Palestine is shown as ‘wet’ for all alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption and for mixed beverages in restaurants, much of the city may be effectively dry due to the local ordinance.”

Oh, and there’s this disclaimer atop the spreadsheet: “This list is not guaranteed accurate. Additional local option elections may have taken place that have affected this list.”

It’s almost enough to make a prohibitionist reach for a stiff drink.

Almost.