Randolph County residents may decide this November if the county will go wet or stay dry.
It’s been several generations since beer, wine, and spirits have been sold in the north Arkansas county, and the amount of money lost is staggering, Keep Revenue in Randolph County spokeswoman Linda Bowlin told Talk Business & Politics. If alcohol could be sold in the county, it would generate about $3.3 million in direct retail sales each year, according to a study conducted by the University of Arkansas.
Sales tax collections receipts in the county and its seat, Pocahontas, would total about $107,000 per year, according to numbers released. It would directly create at least 19 jobs, and another $1.3 million in indirect economic impacts would also occur.
“My motivation is to make our community vibrant again,” Bowlin said.
Despite the positive impact liquor sales could have on the local economy, Bowlin said her group has fought an uphill battle. Many local churches have opposed the measure, and Bowlin thinks liquor stores from adjacent wet counties, such as Sharp and Greene counties, have helped to fuel opposition efforts.
Arkansas law requires 38% of registered voters in a county must sign a wet/dry petition to allow it to appear on the November ballot. The number is absurd, and it makes it almost impossible to allow the voting public to decide the issue, she said. That means about 3,813 people had to sign the petition.
“We don’t have that many people who even vote in regular elections,” she said.
Pocahontas is the county seat in Randolph County with a population of about 8,000. Randolph County, as a whole, has an unemployment rate of 7.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The county’s unemployment rate has been as high as 10% in 2011, and it has not dropped below 7% since the year 2000.
Her group submitted more than 4,000 signatures to Randolph County Clerk Rhonda Blevins at the end of July, but she threw hundreds of them out for various reasons, including signatures not being spot on matches with the person’s voter registration card. Bowlin had her own signature tossed during that process, she said. Keep Revenue in Randolph County only had a few days to get those voters to sign the petition, again.
“It was awful. It was a nightmare,” Bowlin said.
Public outrage over the petitions peaked last week during a public meeting. Several concerned citizens voiced outrage at Blevins for their signatures being removed, according to numerous social media sites. The group turned in their last signatures at 4:20 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, just before their deadline expired.
Blevins told Talk Business & Politics on Monday that the recently submitted signatures are being vetted, and some of the signatures previously tossed will be accepted, or reviewed a second time. One point of contention is that whole signature sheets have been tossed, just because one of the signatures is deemed invalid, Bowlin said. That means all five on the sheet are not counted, she added.
A few were processed that way but only if the invalid signature came from someone who doesn’t live in the county, Blevins said. State law requires all those signatures, in that instance, to be struck, she said.
“We have to follow the law,” she said.
Bowlin said the Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled in a similar case that striking all the signatures is unlawful, and if the matter ends up in court, her group would almost certainly prevail.
How many accepted signatures the group has are hard to determine, according to Bowlin and Blevins. The clerk’s office has until Friday to vet all the signatures, and Blevins said her employees are working on them when they have time.
Blevins was involved in controversy in 2015 after saying sge might not issue same-sex marriage licenses following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. She said her religious beliefs were at the center of her refusal to issue those licenses. Blevins eventually acquiesced, and said she would issue them. The Randolph County Clerk vowed to not allow her religious views to affect her job in this matter. There are state laws that have to be followed, and she intends to do just that, she said.
Bowlin doesn’t know if her group will file a lawsuit if they come up short. If the measure makes it to the ballot, Bowlin thinks it has a good shot of passing. Randolph County would get three or four liquor licenses depending upon the county’s population, and those would be decided during a lottery at the ABC office in Little Rock next year. Grocery stores, gas stations, and other outlets could apply for beer and wine permits.
“We have to grow. We have to step into the 21st century,” Bowlin said. “Alcohol is a legal product, but we can’t buy a legal product in our county. That means if I want a bottle of wine, I have to use my gas, and my time to drive somewhere else to buy a legal product. This is not right, and not being able to vote on it is un-American.”