Dirty politics and deception are nothing new at the South Carolina State House. Hell, they’re the norm. Transparency and honesty might as well not exist in the building.
For the past few weeks, though, S.C. Senate judiciary chairman Luke Rankin has been plumbing the depths of dirty politics while playing with people’s jobs and livelihoods at the behest of a big-moneyed out of state corporate interest. Not only that, he’s continuing a pattern of dishonesty with his fellow lawmakers that has many of them questioning his leadership of the chamber’s second most influential panel.
And yes, we’re referring to the ongoing battle over liquor licenses in the Palmetto State – which this news site addressed most recently in this piece.
The state’s current statutes governing the ownership of liquor stores are set to expire on April 5. If they are not extended or replaced by new law, there will be no rules governing how many liquor stores an individual or group could own.
As we’ve often noted, the federal government endowed states with tremendous leeway in how liquor is regulated. Some states limit the number of stores an individual or entity may own while other states limit the number of stores by population, meaning that only so many stores can serve a certain area based on the number of residents in the area. South Carolina currently has approximately 950 liquor stores, which means ours is the 15th most densely packed state for liquor stores in the nation.
Personally we have no problem with the “no rules” approach (zero regulation is the best regulation in our book), but as one of our letter writers recently noted such a “solution” isn’t exactly consistent with our free market beliefs. In fact, it would likely lead to any number of pernicious realities – including lost jobs, limited selection and higher prices.
Meanwhile, many of the interests pushing the “free market” narrative are really just trying to carve out a competitive advantage over mom and pop stores.
Over the past few years, there has been a major push by liberal out-of-state interests to game the state’s current liquor laws. Remember this fight? Our news site has been all over it from the beginning – writing extensively about “Big Liquor” and its heavy-handed efforts to ram legislation through the S.C. General Assembly.
Now “Big Liquor” – which has a history of ignoring laws it doesn’t like – is hoping to manipulate a manufactured crisis within the S.C. General Assembly to bark orders at the mom and pop stores it is hoping to put out of business.
Their tool? Rankin …
Of course the liberal leader may have overplayed his hand. Last week Rankin – no stranger to special interest sellouts – led many of his fellow senators to believe the various interests in this debate were negotiating in good faith. Several senators had been asking him repeatedly about the status of the bill – and specifically why no hearings had been scheduled with the April 5 deadline looming.
This bill (H. 4729) cleared the S.C. House of Representatives by a 106-1 tally – more than a month ago.
Why is one senator holding it up? And who is pulling his strings?
(Click to view)
According to our sources, Rankin has refused to hold any hearings on this bill because he is trying to try to force a solution on his fellow lawmakers at the last minute.
Last week, representatives of Total Wine – the company pulling Rankin’s strings – finally came to the table and told store owners of their “take it or leave it” offer of seven stores per licensee. The “take it” part of this deal is precisely the number of stores Total Wine wants to open in order to maximize its competitive advantage. The “leave it” part means no compromise – and no new law (i.e. an unlimited number of licenses).
Total Wine – which loves to grease the palms of Palmetto politicians – was able to make these demands because the company has the ear of Rankin, who had been telling his fellow senators that negotiations were ongoing (even though they weren’t).
This is where Rankin overplayed his hand, though. His corporate master does not want unlimited stores. Again, Total Wine wants a set number of stores so it can cherry-pick certain demographic areas of the state in which to operate.
Now it seems the full Senate has wised up to Rankin’s actions.
“Rankin has always been seen as someone who doesn’t do his homework.” one source following the debate told us. “Look how he got his job. He is a client of Richard Quinn, and the Quinns have a long history of involvement with the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association. Their involvement in GOP primary elections (is what) paved the way for Rankin’s chairmanship.”
Rankin is indeed close to Richard Quinn. Perhaps too close for his own good (although #ProbeGate, the ongoing investigation into Quinn’s firm, has all but cleared the veteran strategist).
However Rankin got his job, his habitual dishonesty with his colleagues – and his threats on the liquor bill – are eroding his support within the chamber.
“(Rankin’s) plan is to submit the seven store deal as a compromise, which is total bullsh*t,” one lobbyist following the proceedings told us. “They (Rankin and his allies) have deemed the wholesale piece as unconstitutional, which is also bullsh*t.”
If the retailers and their allies reject this “compromise,” Rankin has reportedly agreed to set a higher license limit – or kill the bill altogether and allow unlimited licenses. A second alleged threat was that Rankin would tell his colleagues in the Senate that the retailers are “obstinate and selfish.”
This has been described by some close to the proceedings as “total blackmail.” Another described Rankin’s tactics as something out of The Sopranos.
Either way it’s costing him a lot of political capital … and support.
We will see what happens this week. Will the full Senate pull Rankin’s teeth or let him have his way?
Because of the looming deadline, there will be some action on the Senate floor soon … so stay tuned.
UPDATE: Well, well … now it’s no secret who is pulling Rankin’s strings.
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