Taxes Matter 14: Cross-Border Shopping and Liquor

The Portland Press Herald ran an editorial on September 8 stating that lowering Maine’s liquor prices is bad public policy. Their logic: lowering prices is bad because it might encourage more people to drink, which would unleash other social costs.

The problem with that logic is that Mainers already have easy access to cheaper booze: they can simply buy it across the border in New Hampshire.

Cross-border shopping in New Hampshire is a major pastime for Mainers. We all know people who make a regular run to buy liquor, cigarettes or other everyday items in New Hampshire. When Mainers go on out-of-state vacations, they take orders from friends and family for the quick stop at the Portsmouth liquor store on the way home.

Put simply, with a little planning, there is virtually no one in Maine who doesn’t already have access to cheaper liquor in New Hampshire. In fact, as shown in the picture above, New Hampshire even pays you to come buy it. The state offers you a $25 coupon, which more than covers your gas bill to make the trip. As the ad in Down East magazine puts it:

“Explore Endless Summer Savings at your nearest New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet—conveniently located across the state. Offering the best selection of wine and spirits at the lowest prices in America.”

In addition, New Hampshire is running a larger ad campaign, called “Load Up New Hampshire.” The state’s online website, www.loadupnh.com, proclaims:

“NO SALES TAX! Every Day, Every Year!

Substantial savings on all beer, wine, and ales

Up to 30.5 cents savings per gallon of gasoline

No state withholding on lottery ticket winnings

As much as $26.70 savings per carton of cigarettes”

Furthermore, the Portland Press Herald editorial misses a much larger point. Think about this: Why does New Hampshire go through all the trouble of running glitzy ads just to sell liquor? Because it isn’t just about liquor.

They know that once you get to New Hampshire, you’ll stay for other shopping and take advantage of other lower taxes on items such as cigarettes and gasoline—plus, there’s no general sales tax in the “Live Free or Die” state.

Of course, retail stores do this all the time. Take any “Marketing 101” course, and one of the first tactics you’ll learn is how to use targeted sales to lure customers who will stay to buy other goods—often negating their initial savings. From a tax perspective, customers save when buying just about anything in New Hampshire, compared to buying it in Maine.

Add up all of these cross-border shopping trips, and you end up with a very big problem. Recent MHPC research has estimated that Maine is losing up to $2.2 billion in retail sales each and every year to New Hampshire. This has created a 40-mile desert of big-box retailers on the Maine side of the border. At the same time, big-box retailers in New Hampshire locate as closely to the Maine border as possible.

Cross-border shopping also hits state and local government coffers. Higher Maine retail sales would mean greater income, sales and property tax revenue. Higher tax revenue would enable reductions in tax rates, which would fuel more economic growth.

Unfortunately, instead of this virtuous tax cycle, Maine has a vicious tax cycle that drives Mainers to spend their hard-earned money elsewhere.

Equalizing Maine’s liquor prices would be an important first step toward taking back our economy. Without the savings from liquor, the overall incentive to shop in New Hampshire is greatly reduced, especially with today’s high gasoline prices.

At some point, Maine’s policymakers have to come to the realization that Maine’s tax policy must become competitive in at least one area. Why not start with liquor?

But wait there’s more, the Union Leader is reporting that New Hampshire’s liquor sales are soaring:

Retail sales at New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets since July 1 are up $9.8 million year-to-date, an increase of 9.4 percent over the previous fiscal year.

Spirit sales increased 9.5 percent and wine sales increased 9.3 percent, according to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.

The commission said it is seeing continued growth at new and recently relocated stores across the state. Seven state liquor stores have been relocated over the past two years as part of a goal to update them statewide. Collectively, those stores experienced $7.9 million in growth in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, the commission reported.

This story originated as an editorial for The Maine Wire.

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