LEWISTON, Maine — Following a threat by Gov. Paul LePage to end the sales of tiny bottles of liquor in Maine rather than allow lawmakers to require a nickel deposit on them, a bottler that employs 130 people in Lewiston withdrew its support for the compromise measure.
Mark Brown, CEO of Sazerac Co., said the governor’s position leaves his company with no option except to oppose a bill it had been more than willing to go along with until LePage stepped in.
Sazerac’s shift doesn’t necessarily undercut passage of the proposal, but it complicates an issue that looked straightforward until the governor denounced it.
For Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, LePage’s refusal to back the bill is a clear indication Maine’s top official is “willing to abuse his power,” even on issues on which there’s a bipartisan legislative consensus, rather than accept defeat.
“I don’t get it,” said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who added that he couldn’t figure out how the governor’s threat makes the slightest business sense.
The Senate and House passed the proposal by wide margins because lawmakers want to crack down on the littering caused by the little bottles commonly referred to as “nips.”
But LePage termed the measure as a “kind of secretive backroom deal that burdens the taxpayer” with an additional cost of $1 million annually without clearly stating how it would be paid for, an accusation legislators strongly denied.
Saviello said the financial reality ought to have the governor “standing beside us” because the nips would bring in $15 million in additional taxes next year alone.
“It just doesn’t make any sense at all except that he doesn’t like to lose,” Golden, the House Democratic whip, said.
Brown said in a letter to the Senate president Monday that if the governor followed through on his threat to delist the 50-milliliter bottles for sale, it would have “a drastic impact” on his company’s sales.
Brown said his company had reached a compromise on the legislation that it could have lived with. It even planned to absorb the nickel charge in its pricing without passing it on to consumers.
Saviello, who worked out the compromise that cleared the way for the measure, said Sazerac “came to the table and tried to work with us” as a “responsible Maine business.”
He said, though, he understands why Sazerac, which operates the Boston Brands facility in Lewiston, doesn’t want to risk losing out in the wake of the governor’s puzzling threat.
LePage’s reaction, which Brown called “very real,” left the company with no option except to abandon its support for the measure, Saviello said.
“Unfortunately, the situation in Augusta has changed, and it has caused us to re-evaluate our position,” Brown wrote to Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.
Sazerac’s Fireball brand nips make up half the sales of the small bottles in the state. Saviello said he wouldn’t mind if the nips were banned because that would solve the littering problem and help cut down on driving under the influence as well.
Saviello said, however, he can’t understand why LePage would even consider a ban on nips.
Brown said Sazerac’s 130 employees in Lewiston earn an average of $50,000 yearly bottling Fireball whiskey, including the nips. He called it a “homegrown product that has created numerous jobs.”
He said the company agrees with lawmakers that there’s a litter problem with nips that ought to be addressed.
Brown said, though, the governor’s opposition is “a threat to the goodwill we have come to expect” from the company’s relationship with state. Consequently, he urged Thibodeau “to help defeat this issue.”
Saviello said that once LePage vetoes the bill, legislators may not be willing to override the veto. But if they do, he said, he’s not sure the governor can follow through with his threat. He said LePage can only recommend that the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations ban nips but cannot force it to obey. Given the state’s contracts and the money at stake, they may well decline to go along, Saviello said.
Golden said he views the nips issue as one that showed off what the Legislature is capable of doing.
Members worked together to work out differences and satisfy the concerns raised by Sazerac, including delaying implementation until 2019 so already printed labels wouldn’t have to be thrown out, Golden said.
He said Saviello did a good job of ironing out problems and coming up with a measure that nearly everyone in both parties could back. It would solve the littering problem, allow for more sales and hold down the cost for consumers.
So, Golden said, it is a mystery why LePage would stand in the way at the last minute.
“To prove what point?” Golden asked. “That you don’t like recycling?”
Golden said legislators have done their job. If LePage wants to undermine a good piece of legislation, he said, then the onus is on him if it winds up costing jobs that wouldn’t be in jeopardy if the governor acted reasonably.
“He’s willing to put at risk jobs in my community,” Golden said, simply because “the governor doesn’t like it when people don’t listen to him.”