POLITICS

Ontario asks what people want in the budget. The resounding answer? Booze.

02/27/2015 01:14 EST | Updated 04/29/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Ontarians have given the government a resounding answer to the question what would they like to see in the budget: booze.

Residents were invited to submit ideas online then vote on them during a public consultation period that closed Friday. The most popular idea by far is allowing private retailers to sell beer, wine and alcohol.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has indicated changes to the alcohol distribution system are coming, but selling beer in convenience stores won't be one of them.

The Liberal government tapped TD Bank CEO Ed Clark to examine the relationship between the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the Beer Store as part of a review of all government assets, and his recommendations are expected to come in the spring budget.

A plan to set up LCBO outlets was put on hold pending Clark's recommendations, but a Progressive Conservative's private member's bill that would essentially create mini-craft beer stores and local wine outlets passed second reading this week with support of the Liberals.

Todd Smith's bill would allow Ontario brewers and cideries to sell each other's products and allow wineries to sell each others' wines.

"I've got 40 wineries in (my riding of) Prince Edward County, a craft distillery and a craft brewery," he said, later adding to the list a popular cidery. "The access to the marketplace for Ontario products isn't helping them grow the industry. Ontario wines are winning international awards, but they're having trouble getting wide distribution in Ontario restaurants and at the LCBO."

Finance Minister Charles Sousa said this week the government's goals are to "provide greater fairness, increase the ability for some domestics to have access and maintain prices that are competitive."

The proposal from the online consultation — which received more than twice as many votes as that of the next most popular idea — says "it's a pretty simple concept."

"Charge yearly licensing fees to the retailers who wish to sell these products and put a stop to the government-protected Beer Store monopoly," a poster with the username freemarketbeer wrote.

"An open market would lead to lower alcoholic beverage prices for the average consumer. This decrease in the cost of beer, wine and spirits would lead to increased consumption and would put more tax money back into the pockets of the Ontario government."

Clark rejected privatizing the LCBO in an interim report, and recommended the foreign-owned Beer Store give taxpayers a "fair share" of its profits or have the government auction off its virtual monopoly if the consortium won't pay an undetermined fee.

Ontario craft brewers say their market share is held back by the Beer Store, which makes it difficult — and expensive — for them to sell their products in its 448 retail outlets.

The rest of the five most popular ideas are:

2) Increase funding for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Natural Resources

3) Stop funding Catholic education

4 and 5) Improve/establish universal access to psychological services