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As drunk driving deaths plague Alaska, alcohol regulation moves to Commerce department

Pat Forgey
Over the past year, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has had much of its time taken up by a move from Public Safety to the state Department of Commerce -- including a shift to new offices.
Alaska Dispatch file art

JUNEAU -- At the Alaska Capitol, concern over the state's continuing plague of drunk driving deaths may not be as big a concern as possible state "persecution" of the bars and liquor stores that sell alcohol. Those are represented in Capitol hallways by CHARR, the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailers Association, one of the state's most powerful lobbying groups.

At the behest of CHARR, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, pushed a bill that became law, relocating the state's primary alcohol regulator, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, from the law enforcement-focused Department of Public Safety to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

The switch, said Hawker and other proponents, was to give the state's bars and liquor stores a more "collaborative" approach, rather than focusing on punishing such establishments.

Year spent getting adjusted

The board's chief tool to prevent underage drinking is what it calls "compliance checks," of bars, restaurants and liquor stores. The establishments call them "stings." The checks involve using underage buyers, working in conjunction with ABC Board investigators, to test whether clerks and servers actually check IDs, and check them correctly.

Gov. Sean Parnell didn't propose the change of departments, but signed the legislation making the switch after the Legislature passed it last year. Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell assured legislators that if they made the switch to her department, they'd continue to aggressively enforce the same laws as the Department of Public Safety had done.

That's happened, confirmed Shirley Cote, executive director of the ABC Board.

"I've not had anybody tell me that our enforcement effort should be decreased or made more lenient," she said.

What's also happened, however, was a whole lot of bureaucracy involved with the move, she said. That's ranged from new offices, website, letterhead, phone system, fiscal system, and a records-management system, she said.

"I think it took pretty much the better part of a year to get adjusted to our new location," Cote said. The ABC Board's Anchorage office had formerly been located next to Alaska State Troopers headquarters, a fellow law enforcement agency. Now it's in the Ship Creek area.

The relocation will be complete soon, when the Fairbanks office is moved from a Department of Public Safety facility to a Commerce building, she said. The Juneau office has already moved.

Maintained minimum number compliance checks

All those changes, the physical location and the new administrative systems, have taken a substantial amount of time, she said.

"I really didn't keep a tally of the time it took to do that, but it was major," Cote said, adding that the agency still met their minimum number of compliance checks.

Hawker declined comment on the change he'd proposed this week, but had earlier told fellow legislators that in its former home the ABC Board was "overzealous in its persecution of a legal industry."

Those are "legitimate businesses who employ tens of thousands of Alaskans," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, supporting the measure on the House floor last year. He said the board had become too focused on enforcement.

That enforcement appears to have worked in Alaska. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed Alaska with the nation's lowest rate of drinkers ages 12-20 who bought their own alcohol over the past month, 3.1 percent. ABC Board records show that licensees subject to compliance checks sold to underage buyers 11 percent of the time.

Cote said the goal was to reach 95 percent compliance, but said Alaska's establishments were "impressive" in their commitment to following the law.

Among the changes caused by the new home for the ABC Board has been getting legislators and the Department of Commerce up to speed.

Underage investigators needed

This year, legislators were startled to hear that the board was sending underage persons into bars to see if they’d be served, but the Department of Commerce's administrative services director assured the committee reviewing its budget that the department wouldn't use underage patrons to check up on establishments. That incorrect information was later corrected.

Cote said her investigators have to work with underage investigators for violations to merit a citation.

The move to the Department of Commerce wasn't the first switch for the ABC Board, Cote said. It had previously been located in the Department of Revenue.

"Frank Murkowski, when he was first governor, he changed our agency from Revenue to DPS, to kind of lend support to the whole issue of drunk driving and alcohol abuse," Cote said.

She said that move was successful.

"I think what he wanted to accomplish, he accomplished," she said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com