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Bizz killer

Dean Kirby’s fear of voters leaves millions of tax dollars on table

Since 2003, Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. in Kiln has operated as Mississippi’s only brewer, churning out locally flavored beer and becoming a small business success story.

But it isn’t what it could be financially because of Mississippi’s laws that restrict the alcohol content in beers to 5 percent alcohol by weight, the lowest in the nation.

Leslie Henderson, who co-owns Lazy Magnolia with her husband, Mark, said if the alcohol content ceiling was raised to 8 percent, it would mean a sizable jump in her sales because she could add to her product line of gourmet and craft beer, whose alcohol content by weight hovers in the range of 7 and 8 percent.

“I would estimate our business would have been approximately 25 percent greater (the past year), which is on the order of about $750,000, just in revenue,” she said. “I would say at least 50 percent of that goes to pay some sort of taxes. That’s a lot of tax dollars that are lost. There are existing customers that want (craft beer) from us, but we can’t produce it for them. Most of our sales by percentage, particularly because we’re in five states, are outside of Mississippi. It has certainly held us back as far as expansion goes.”

Raise Your Pints Mississippi, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to the pursuit and enjoyment of craft beer, has supported legislation the past two sessions that would raise the allowable alcohol content for beer in Mississippi from 5 percent alcohol by weight to 8 percent ABW. They’re doing the same this year, and have found a friend in Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who has authored the content-specific legislation and another bill that would legalize the homebrewing of beer in Mississippi.

The outlook for each is grim.

“Dead on arrival, both of them,” Baria said last week of the bills’ chances of making it out of the Senate Finance Committee. “It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m from the Coast. When we run campaign events, if we don’t have beer, we won’t get a single vote. It’s just different in other parts of the state. It’s frustrating because it’s reasonable. All you would is bring our laws in line with every single other state. As it is, you’re limiting choice. We have one brewer (Lazy Magnolia) in Mississippi. They’ve had to turn down brewing contracts because the recipe would have resulted in a higher alcohol content. They have literally lost business because of this law. I haven’t given up on these, but if it has anything to do with alcohol, (Lt. Gov.) Phil (Bryant) doesn’t want to see it.”

Bryant said in an emailed statement that he did “not see a reasonable public benefit to increasing the alcohol content in Mississippi.”

Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, who chairs the Finance Committee, confirmed that the beer legislation stood zero chance of making it out of his committee, and that he wouldn’t introduce it.

“I really don’t want to put my committee members in an uncomfortable position in an election year,” he said of his reasons for not bringing the bill to a vote. Kirby said he would allow Bailey and Henderson and other pro-craft beer groups to present their case to his committee some time before the session ends.

“We’re rather resigned to defeat at this point,” Henderson said. “It’s frustrating, especially when all we want to do is create jobs in Mississippi and give more money to the state. We’re not coming to Jackson asking for anything. We’re begging them to let us give them more money. I think they really need my money.”

Butch Bailey, a Hattiesburg forester who serves as president of Raise Your Pints, shares Baria’s and Henderson’s frustration with the legislation being lost in the anxiety of election-year politics.

“No one’s ever given me a good reason why we should not pass it,” he said in an interview last week. ‘It’s an election year.’ That’s all I ever hear, but there’s never an explanation behind it. My response as a citizen of Mississippi is I think they should stand up and do the right thing. Stop worrying so much about your political bosses or your party bosses and the tough election. Do the right thing for the state that will raise revenue.”

What particularly irks Bailey is the alcohol content legislation, he says, does not intrude on a county’s local option to either sell beer or not to sell beer. All the bill would do is expand the number and style of beers available for consumers to buy in counties where alcohol is already legally sold, and would grow the number of places distributors would service, because it would open the door for microbreweries like those found on nearly every street corner in the western U.S. Because of that, the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association, a trade group representing beer distributors across the state, is in favor of raising the alcohol content maximum to no more than 8 percent, said president Richard Brown.

“Anything more than that and you start to get away from beer’s intended concept as the beverage of moderation,” he said.

Said Bailey: “Our overall mission is to bring a world-class craft beer scene to Mississippi. If you go to places like Oregon and Colorado, it’s treated the way fine wine is. These are gourmet products, and there are thousands and thousands of Mississippians who enjoy it the same way and travel out of state to buy it. We want to buy it here. To get that, we have to remove this ban. About a third of all beer styles are banned here, and 70 percent of the top-rated beers in the world are banned in Mississippi. We don’t think that’s fair. They’re legal in almost every other country, and in 49 out of 50 states. So it’s basically Mississippi and Saudi Arabia that ban these products.

“We think Mississippians are mature and intelligent enough to make the same choice people in Alabama and Louisiana and Tennessee can make,” Bailey continued. “This isn’t anything radical. Here’s a good example: You can go into a grocery store and a six pack of a Lazy Magnolia beer cost about the same as a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. If you’re a binge drinker, or you’re drinking to get drunk, which beer are you going to buy? We’re going to fight. We’re not going away until we get this done. This is a common-sense, win-win situation for everybody involved. We’ll fight until this happens.”

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About Clay Chandler