BERLIN — After years of considerable saber rattling and gnashing of teeth, the Maryland General Assembly this session almost quietly abolished Worcester’s Liquor Control Board (LCB) and replaced it with a county-run agency that will soon take over the dispensing of spirits in the county.
Dissatisfaction with Worcester County’s antiquated LCB, one of four agencies of its kind still in place in Maryland, reached a crescendo last summer and early fall amid allegations of price gouging, unfair trade practices and declining revenues.
By comparison, the legislative process to disband the LCB and replace it with a similar operation run instead by the county passed quietly through the House and Senate.
Throughout last summer, the LCB came under increased scrutiny, including an extensive audit by the state Comptroller’s Office into alleged trade violations. When those allegations were confirmed at the completion of the state audit last fall, the LCB all but admitted the violations and agreed to pay a $16,000 fine to avoid further proceedings. That’s a fine LCB officials are now asking be refunded because the Comptroller’s Office, they believe, lacks the authority to collect the fine.
In addition, the LCB’s revenue contribution to the county dropped from around $411,000 in 2009 to just about $112,000 last year. In recent history, the LCB’s annual contribution to the county and its towns approached $1 million. This low profit, coupled with the verified wrongdoings, led a majority of the county’s licensees to seek an end to the LCB, allowing them to deal directly with distributors in the open market.
However, the Worcester County Commissioners were not ready to completely disband the LCB and proposed a county takeover of the liquor dispensary system. In the end, compromise legislation was adopted that provided for a county takeover of the LCB with an opt-out provision for the licensees within five years.
The companion bills introduced by Senator Jim Mathias on the Senate side and Delegates Norm Conway and Mike McDermott on the House side breezed through their respective chambers and will become law when Gov. Martin O’Malley signs the bills.
From the outset, Mathias promised to introduce legislation to disband the LCB if the allegations against the agency proved true. He said this week he was pleased with the outcome, which appears to bring a rational conclusion to what was at times an ugly debate.
“I gave the industry my word I would see this through,” he said. “I’m very pleased for a variety of reasons, most importantly because of the transparency and accountability this is going to bring. That’s what this bill does.”
McDermott agreed, saying, “I felt like this was a pretty big deal and I’m glad we were able to get it done.”