Bruce Reade
The ad for the popular local club was fairly subdued. Across the bottom, it read: "great specials." But those seemingly tame words were enough to rankle the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), the agency charged with policing booze and bars in the state.

Even though the ad was referring to nightly food specials, an OLCC agent visited the club and gave them a stern warning: another violation would lead to a $1,000 fine.

Under OLCC rules, bars and taverns may host happy hours with discounted drinks and food, but they cannot advertise them. Even though there are no studies to support the theory, the rationale seems to be that advertised happy hours will entice patrons to wildly abuse discounted drinks and become so stinking drunk that they can no longer function. This theory, of course, fails to acknowledge that there are other safeguards in place--like bartenders who are under penalty if they over-serve a patron.

But over the past month, the OLCC has apparently been cracking down on advertised happy hours--or anything that may even hint at a happy hour. The longtime manager of a downtown tavern was also visited by an OLCC agent after the bar ran an ad in the Mercury that mentioned happy hour food specials. (The OLCC's power of intimidation is so daunting that, for fear of retribution, not a single bar or club owner would talk on the record about recent fines or warnings.)

"The words 'happy hour' set them off," said the bar's manager. In ten years, she had never so much as received a warning for violating OLCC rules. But the agent left her with the threat of a $1,000 fine.

Another bar was contacted based only on the suspicion that bar owners may begin running ads mentioning weekend food specials. "It was just hunch," the OLCC agent apparently told the bartender. The eastside club offers discounted food plates on the weekend, which is perfectly legal, and they do not advertise the specials, nor did they have any plans to do so.

The sudden crackdown has some bar managers and liquor store owners--who also are governed by the OLCC--wondering whether the state agency is struggling to justify its existence. By flexing their muscles, bar owners believe the OLCC is attempting to show off their necessity. Over the past few months, the state agency has been dealt several setbacks. Last year, the OLCC declared that underage strippers and musicians would no longer be allowed to perform in clubs. That policy angered club owners and musicians, who said the OLCC was overstepping their bounds. In the face of lawsuits and a concerted lobby effort from the Musicians' Union, the agency backed off the rule and finally abandoned it two months ago. Moreover, as other states dismantle their liquor commissions, many are wondering whether it is simply time for the OLCC to be retired.

"I understand the premise of the OLCC," said a longtime bar manager, "but a lot of people are wavering over whether they are necessary."

The OLCC is a holdover from early last century. When Congress abolished Prohibition, states were given the opportunity to regulate alcohol themselves. At the time, almost half of the states established liquor commissions. But in recent years, several states have begun to either roll back those agencies' powers or completely abolish them. (Studies have shown that liquor commissions have absolutely no effect on drunk driving incidents. In fact, in three states that abolished their liquor commissions, DUII rates dropped.)

Three years ago, liquor store managers in Oregon attempted to put forward a bill in the state legislature to abolish the OLCC. But that legislation lost steam, in part because the OLCC is a major money-maker for the state. The OLCC also draws in more than $100 million in revenue each year (compared to a $90 million budget). In tough economic times for the state, showing a positive revenue flow can be a very convincing argument.

But, even though the OLCC fended off legislation, they have agreed to a pilot project this fall that would permit a limited number of supermarkets to begin selling liquor. (Currently, liquor is only available in state-controlled liquor stores.) In October, the OLCC will test market three grocery stores across the state, including a Thriftway in west Portland.

"They are loosening their grip," said one liquor store owner. "It's the beginning of the end."