Mo. Lawmakers Look at Greater Liquor Law Enforcement

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JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri senators looked at a proposal Thursday to beef up enforcement of the state's liquor laws after 2010 budget cuts dramatically reduced the size of the state's liquor control division.

In 2010, the state cut the budget of the Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) division, better known as "liquor control."

The Senate's Ways and Means Committee heard public testimony on a bill Thursday to allow the ATC to use some of the revenue it generates to hire new agents and get operations back to where they were before the budget cuts.

Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, sponsored the bill to increase revenue for the ATC. The bill has moved out of the House and Higdon told KOMU 8 News it received support in the Senate committee Thursday morning. The bill passed the House on a 138-5 vote in February.

The ATC had a budget of $3.25 million in 2007 and generated $36.1 million worth of general revenue for the state by collecting fines. In the 2013 budget year, the department's budget was $1.25 million, less than half of what it was in 2007.

In 1999, the department had 60 regulatory employees responsible for enforcing tobacco and liquor laws. In the last budget year, the ATC had ten employees enforcing those laws.

KOMU 8 News has learned that fewer employees means less aggressive enforcement.

A records request showed the ATC dismissed 81 of its 3,000 regulatory violations in 2007-2008, but that jumped to 418 dismissals on 2,000 violations from 2011-2012. The records request also showed 537 liquor licenses were suspended or revoked in 2007-2008, compared to 153 in the years 2011-2012.

As a former law enforcement officer, Higdon said he believes the downsizing of the ATC has led to a lack of effective enforcement of the state's liquor and tobacco laws and leaves the responsibility to local law enforcement agencies who are less apt to have knowledge of liquor laws.

"It's just like when you go to a doctor and he or she says we need to send you to a specialist," Higdon said. "Those officers in the field aren't highly trained in the alcohol and tobacco rules and regulations, what you can and can't have in the stores. We've had to re-train those individuals and it's tough to keep up."

Higdon's bill would divert certain fee collections from ATC into a new Alcohol and Tobacco and Control Trust, instead of putting the collections into general revenue, which is the state's discretionary pot of money it uses to fund programs.

In the 2015 budget year, which starts July 1 of this year, Higdon's proposal would divert nearly $400,000 annually to the trust fund. The money would be exclusively for staffing and other enforcement needs at the ATC.

Higdon said the money could first be used to upgrade the ATC computer systems. Higdon said businesses currently mail in applications for liquor licenses and it takes 60-90 days to hear back from the ATC. Higdon said small business would benefit if the state speeds up that process.

The bill passed the House on a 138-5 vote in February. It still needs to be voted out of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee.