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Going wet 1 county's poll issue

Saline signatures OK; 2 others out

By Aziza Musa

This article was published August 1, 2014 at 3:18 a.m.

Saline County residents in November will decide whether to allow alcohol sales in the county.

The group backing the ballot measure -- Our Community, Our Dollars -- garnered enough signatures for residents in Saline County to make the decision Nov. 4, County Clerk Doug Curtis said Thursday.

Meanwhile, the same group on Thursday suspended efforts to place a similar measure on the ballot in historically conservative Craighead and Faulkner counties, the group's president, Jay Allen, said in a statement.

"We will now focus our attention on encouraging Saline County residents to get out and vote in support of turning Saline from dry to wet," he said. "There are significant economic benefits to this change, and we're looking forward to continuing to educate residents about the issue."

In Saline County, the group -- supported by Wal-Mart, Kum & Go and other retailers -- initially submitted 25,917 signatures on July 7, but the clerk's office said 4,406 were not valid. The group turned in 6,738 more signatures Monday, allowing it to reach the threshold to place the measure on the ballot.

A measure needs 38 percent of registered voters' signatures to make the ballot. On Thursday, Curtis certified that the group had 73 more signatures than the required 25,580.

Saline County residents last voted on an alcohol-sales measure on Feb. 11, 1936. At the time, 431 residents voted for it and 620 voted against it, Curtis has said.

Groups including the Arkansas Family Council and the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council said Thursday that they would provide support to any local groups opposing the measure.

Faith and Ethics Council Director Larry Page said the matter all comes down to the quality of life.

"There really needs to be some soul-searching," he said. "There are those in Saline County to say, 'What's broken in Saline County that alcohol can fix?'"

Voters will decide, Page said, whether something really is broken or whether they have "a good thing going." Residents in the county who can drink are able to, he said, referring to private clubs.

The county has 27 private clubs selling alcohol, according to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control.

"When they really stop and think about it, they probably will realize they have a good thing going," Page said.

Counties that legalize alcohol sales will reap their share "of all the problems that go along with that," said Jerry Cox executive director of the Family Council Action Committee, which is the council's political arm.

"I believe Arkansas already has enough alcohol available to citizens," he said. "I hate to see Arkansas lose those wholesome environments that exist in those dry counties."

The state has 38 wet counties and 37 dry counties. Those in dry counties can drink at establishments with private-club licenses.

Both opposition groups said the "other side" usually amps up the economic impact of alcohol sales.

Our Community, Our Dollars funded a $30,973 study conducted by the University of Arkansas' Center for Business and Economic Research that estimated that Saline County could earn $34.2 million in alcohol sales with related sales-tax revenue. Researchers, who made the revenue estimates on the basis of last year's sales figures in wet counties, said Craighead County could have earned $24.8 million and Faulkner County could have earned $28.2 million in the same manner.

But Page and Cox said alcohol sales are a greater harm to society in the long run.

"I don't know of any society that ever drank its way to prosperity," Cox said. "It may be good for the economy for the people who are selling it. But it doesn't help the bottom line of the community as a whole."

The availability of more alcohol, especially at bars late at night, could lead to more crime, such as drunken driving, he said.

"How do you put a dollar value on that?" Cox asked. "Some things are just a lot more important than the almighty dollar."

Also Thursday, Our Community, Our Dollars discontinued efforts to place alcohol-sales measures on ballots in Craighead and Faulkner counties.

The group submitted 21,180 signatures in Craighead County on July 7, but 5,032 of those were turned down, the Craighead County clerk's office has said. The group needed 3,810 more signatures to gather the 19,958 to put the measure on the ballot, County Clerk Kade Holliday had said.

Allen, the group's president, said in the news release Thursday that he "greatly" regretted suspending efforts in both counties.

"It has been decades since voters in these counties have had such an opportunity," he said.

"However, given where we stand today on the requirement that 38 percent of voters in each county must sign a petition to place this matter on the ballot, we have decided to discontinue our efforts in Faulkner and Craighead."

The group had until Aug. 5 to collect signatures in Faulkner County. Allen has said the group saw more opposition in those two counties than it did in Saline.

For Cox, the failure to place the measure on the ballot in the two counties was a relief.

"It's a cause for hope that our society is a little bit more wholesome than I thought," he said.

Allen did not return a message left on his cellphone.

Craighead and Faulkner counties could still become wet. A group backing a statewide effort to place the wet-dry issue on ballots in Arkansas' 75 counties has until Aug. 18 to gather enough signatures.

If the measure is placed on statewide ballots and if voters approve it, all dry counties will become wet.

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