I was going to stay away from commenting on a new bill in California, AB 1060, really I was. Something about it bothered me from the start, the problem it seeks to fix never seemed credible, but it seemed inevitable that it would pass anyway. It was actually introduced in February of 2009 and has been winding its way through the state legislature ever since. It was recently passed and is on its way to the Governator’s office for signature or veto.
What AB 1060 does it make it illegal for stores, primarily grocery stores, to sell alcohol using the new self-serve checkout machines that are popping up all over the place. The argument is that underage kids can get around the roadblocks in the system set up to keep underage people from being able to — gasp — purchase alcohol. The bill also tackles the made-up problems of intoxicating people buying booze and theft, though it’s not the theft of the alcohol that worries the state, but the theft of the tax revenue lost in the theft.
The bill was spun so that it’s all about “Alcohol & Teen Drinking Prevention,” as is made clear by the Yes on AB 1060 website. They write:
AB 1060 only requires that customers walk over a few feet to a checkout line with a cashier who can check ID. It’s not too much to ask to protect our youth and our communities.
It is only a matter of time that our youth will exploit a vulnerable system to purchase alcohol without showing ID. We must take action to stop it now.
As they state, “[i]t’s not too much to ask to protect our youth and our communities.” And no, perhaps it’s not, but it is just one more way in which the roughly 80% of the population who is above 21 is inconvenienced yet again in our out-of-proportion drive to “protect” the young’uns. And that’s why I initially just let it go, because I’d sound like even more of a jackass than I usually do if I got worked up about not being able to more quickly check out of the grocery store every time I wanted to buy beer.
One funny thing I can’t help but note is how our nation’s youth is portrayed as being at once naive and in great need of being protected and, of course, not be able to responsibly drink alcohol but yet at the same time they say it’s “only a matter of time [before] our youth will exploit a vulnerable system to purchase alcohol without showing ID.” Wow, we must have a pretty savvy and well-organized generation of kids who can take down the best computer minds who created — you have to admit — the pretty amazing self-checkout machine.
Anyway, what’s changed my mind is that MADD, Join Together and the Marin Institute are all supporting the bill and urging Governor Terminator to sign it into law.
Except, as an aside, I have to mention that the Marin Institute is supposedly a “watchdog.” What are they doing weighing in on this? Their “mission” is “to protect the public from the impact of the alcohol industry’s negative practices.” This has absolutely nothing to do with the alcohol industry, this is about grocery stores and youth access to alcohol (supposedly, anyway). Making it harder for everyone to buy alcohol draped in the protective mantle of “it’s for the kids” is the domain of the neo-prohibitionists, something they assure me they’re not.
But when you look deeper, you find that this bill may not really be about the kids at all, and instead may be about money and unions. The support of the neo-prohibitionists was either a calculated ploy on the part of the bill’s sponsors or a very happy accident. State Senator Tom Harmon, from the 35th District (Orange County coastline) has a very different story to tell. Last month, he wrote AB 1060 is a Solution in Search of a Problem, which is below here in its entirety. It made no difference, of course, in the final vote, because a good story, especially one that’s about protecting the kiddies, beats the truth every time.
When something looks too good to be true, a smart person starts wondering what’s behind it. In the case of Assembly Bill 1060, you don’t have to look very far. Presented as a feel-good law to protect kids, this bill is really about protecting union jobs.
AB 1060 purports to solve a number of “problems.” Minors sneaking alcohol through self-service checkouts, drunken shoppers buying more booze, and the state missing out on its share of sales taxes because self-check out technology facilitates stealing. None of these arguments makes much sense.
The bill theorizes that kids could buy alcohol beverages at self-serve check aisles. In fact, there is already a lock-out mechanism at such stands preventing anyone from buying alcohol without a clerk present to sign off on their age. Next?
Protecting inebriated shoppers from themselves is a real howler. Anybody who’s ever used one of those self-serve check-out stands knows it’s difficult enough for a sober person.
Finally, the bill’s author worries that the state will lose sales tax money if more booze is boosted. Is this about money or about protecting customers? If this were a problem, would stores — who have more to lose than the state if their merchandise is stolen — have instituted self check-out in the first place? Obviously not.
AB 1060 would deny a liquor license to any store “using a point-of-sale system with limited or no assistance from an employee of the licensee.” Read that again. It means a store that sells alcohol beverages could not have any self-serve check stands.
The bill’s true target is Fresh and Easy, a new supermarket chain that features all-self-service check stands. Fresh and Easy supermarkets are designed to provide affordable food choices by holding down costs through automation and energy efficiency. They’re finding a niche in low-income, underserved neighborhoods. Their workers are non-union.
AB 1060 mandates greater employee supervision of self-service check stands, increasingly used in major supermarkets. And it would limit supermarkets’ low-cost, self-service technology.
Instead of helping constituents find accessible, affordable food, this bill by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre will raise food prices for all shoppers in order to protect supermarket unions. It has nothing to do with protecting youngsters, drunks or taxpayers.
But none of that matters to the neo-prohibitionists. They care about restricting access to alcohol for everybody.
Steve Shapiro says
Thank you for your dogged scrutiny of prohibitionist legislation. It’s good to know that someone’s watching these characters.
I do have to take issue with one statement you dropped into this story:
“But when you look deeper, you find that this bill is not really about the kids at all, it’s really about money and unions (which are also about money).”
What data supports this statement? I see nothing other than the Republican Assembly Whip, Tom Harmon’s assertion that this legislation is primarily about protecting unions or union jobs?
Can it not simply be another example of a wrongheaded attempt to protect youth and inebriated adults from the “evils of the demon alcohol?” The store mentioned is not even a union shop.
The negative characterization of unions seems to be a red herring. It’s a consistent Republican meme repeated often in relation to a whole host of public policy initiatives, often gratuitously.
The relative benefits of unions is a discussion better left for another time and place. Let’s concentrate on defeating the real villains, the neo-prohibitionists and their ilk.
You may well be right, certainly about the “negative characterization of unions” being a “Republican meme” and I’m a big supporter of unions.
But I also can’t ignore what I consider to be some interesting points that Harmon brings up. In an interview with the bill’s sponsor, De La Torre, his only rebuttal to Harmon’s suggestion re: Fresh & Easy was that no bill would ever target an individual company. But in my years of working in a law office, I saw hundreds of such laws that were enacted for very specific and narrow purposes, so his denial rang flat for me.
I also may be more susceptible to Harmon’s argument, because in this case I find AB 1060 simply unnecessary. The current laws should be sufficient and I can’t but think the paranoia exhibited in the propaganda urging it to become law is just preying on absurd fears.
In deference to your political experience, I changed the language to suggest that it “may” not be about the kids, instead of my earlier suggestion that it definitely is.
But let’s definitely have that discussion, Steve.