Some Oklahoma counties cling to Prohibition Era ways

One-third of Oklahoma counties remain dry, but county residents are increasingly interested in allowing sales of mixed drinks in bars and restaurants to increase tax revenue, which funds essential services.
by Jennifer Palmer Published: December 30, 2013
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Order a glass of wine with your dinner at the Rockin' H Land & Cattle Co., and you're likely to be disappointed.

Because the steakhouse is in Cotton County — one of 26 counties where selling liquor by the drink still is outlawed — patrons of the steakhouse in Temple are limited to low-point beer or nonalcoholic beverages.

The same is true inside the Bootjack dance hall they've added next door, which has a jukebox, live music and a bar.

“We've got everything but liquor. You can only serve beer in this county,” owner Robert Hale said.

Complying with the law makes it difficult for his business to compete with similar establishments in nearby counties and Texas, he said.

Cotton County voters in November elected to keep the county dry, with 674 residents against a proposition to allow liquor by the drink and 571 for it.

Oklahoma voters in 1984 approved giving counties the option for liquor by the drink. The next year, voters in 29 counties approved liquor by the drink proposals, with three more counties doing so the next year. Interest waned but seems to be gaining momentum again.

Of Oklahoma's 77 counties, 26 remain dry (five years ago, there were 31 dry counties.) Two counties have an upcoming vote to allow liquor by the drink: Choctaw County in January and Johnston County in February.

Proponents of change say it's essential for economic prosperity. Often, cash-strapped counties are seeking ways to earn additional tax dollars.

“Our goal was to create some new revenue and jobs for the county,” said Donna Wahnee, director of special projects for the Comanche Nation, who led an effort to change the law in Cotton County. “It was heartbreaking to see it fail.”

She said several restaurants and the county's four casinos would benefit from being able to serve liquor, and the tax revenue would funnel back into essential services such as schools.

Cotton County has voted to allow liquor by the drink several times, and Wahnee said this was the closest a proposition has come to passing. She vows to try again in 2015.

Across the U.S., most of the dry counties that remain are concentrated in a few states, especially in the South and West, said Ben Jenkins, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association for liquor markers and marketers.

“There's a trend of localities wetting up and repealing outdated blue laws,” he said.

In Texas, there have been more than 600 local elections since 2004, and in nearly 80 percent of those, voters have elected to go wet, he said.

Another proposition gaining momentum is allowing liquor stores to open on Sunday, a practice still banned in Oklahoma. Sixteen states since 2002 have passed laws allowing counties to adopt Sunday liquor sales; of those, Georgia, has had about 200 localities approve such sales since 2011, when the state began allowing it, Jenkins said.


by Jennifer Palmer
Investigative Reporter
Jennifer Palmer joined The Oklahoman staff in 2008 and, after five years on the business desk, is now digging deeper through investigative work. She's been recognized with awards in public service reporting and personal column writing. Prior to...
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