A one-paragraph amendment to the state Legislature’s new, sweeping alcohol reform law gave owners of gas stations in McKinley County a choice: You can sell hard liquor or you can sell gas.
To Benjamin Gonzales, manager of the El Sabino’s grocery and gas station in Vanderwagen, it was a “no-brainer.”
“We stopped selling gas July 1, the day the new liquor law went into effect.”
The store is one of at least three in the county that covered its gas pumps in plastic in recent months, a direct response to the law, according to store employees, residents and county officials. The law prohibited gas stations from selling liquor in the county, so the stations stopped selling gas to circumvent the ban.
The choice to stop selling gas in rural parts of the county has stranded some motorists and added another inconvenience to life near the border of the Navajo Nation, residents said.
It also demonstrates the difficulty legislators face in crafting policy to help cut down on alcoholism and drunken driving in the area, both scourges that cost dozens of lives in the county each year.
State Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who lobbied for the amendment, said the gas stations’ choice to close “wasn’t unexpected.” But he said it represents a choice owners made to put profits above an essential service.
“I think they made a moral choice, a financial choice. They probably weren’t pumping that much gas,” he said. “They were just really liquor stores with a gas pump outside.”
One gas station in the county sells 80 gallons of vodka a day, Muñoz said. Gonzales said El Sabino station makes about $8,000 a day in hard liquor sales but just about $2,000 a day on gasoline.
“Everyone’s complaining that we should have kept the gas and got rid of the liquor, and this, that and the third, but people just don’t understand,” Gonzales said in a phone interview. “I mean, if we would have done that, several of our employees would have lost their job, you know, or had their hours cut.”
Now that El Sabino has stopped selling gas, the closest places to fuel up along Route 602 are in Zuni Pueblo, about 17 miles southwest, and Gallup, about 21 miles north.
Just last week, Gonzales said, a car sputtered to a stop at the station, out of gas. He said he happened to have a five-gallon tank in the back of the shop to help the stranded driver make it to Gallup.
Owner Gigi Garcia said gas is a money-losing endeavor at her station. All of the 8-cent-a-gallon profits are lost in salaries and maintenance. And she was soon going to have to buy new pumps to satisfy new federal regulations to prevent identity theft.
So she blamed Muñoz for the law that gave her a choice between being profitable or not. She also defended alcohol sales, saying she’s not doing anything illegal and has chosen to limit alcohol sales somewhat to reduce potential safety risks, even though her liquor license would allow more.
“When you buy alcohol or food or whatever you want to buy, it is your choice…,” she said. “There are many people with heart problems, diabetes, just many different diseases which are also legal to buy … but we’re not going to shut these things down because people make their own choices.”
Garcia also owns Red Rock Liquor Package in Smith Lake, another McKinley County station, which also stopped selling gasoline because of the new law, according to an employee.
A third store, the Speedway in Church Rock near an area locals call “Dead Horse,” stopped selling gasoline after the law was passed in March but before it went into effect, according to resident Jennifer Brown, who drives past the station daily. The marquee that used to display gas prices now just says “COLD BEER.”
Speedway’s owners did not respond to a request for comment.
Billy Moore, chair of the McKinley County Commission, said he agrees with the spirit of the law — that mixing gas stations and liquor is a bad idea. DWI in McKinley County was the driving force behind the statewide ban of drive-up liquor sales in 1998.
Moore doesn’t see much of a difference between selling liquor through a window at a drive-up store and selling it over the counter at a rural gas station.
“I think it’s pretty sad. We’re trying to help protect people, bring DWIs down in New Mexico and especially McKinley County, but, again, money trumps over doing what’s right,” he said.
The Liquor Control Act passed in 2021 was the biggest reform to the state’s liquor laws in 40 years, officials said at the time of its passage.
The 74-page bill allows for liquor delivery in the state, bans the sale of mini liquor bottles at convenience stores, creates a new class of liquor license for restaurants, and repeals the ban on Sunday morning alcohol sales, plus other changes.
Muñoz introduced the amendment that banned convenience stores that sell gas from selling any hard liquor, though they can still sell beer and wine. He said at the time that banning gas stations in the county from selling liquor would “help the problem in McKinley County tremendously.”
In 2019, McKinley County had the highest rate of alcohol-involved car crashes in the state — 20.5 per every 10,000 people, according to the state Transportation Department. The county also had about 150 alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 people between 2013 and 2017, according to the Health Department. That’s also the highest in the state.
Because of its long-standing alcoholism problems, the county and the city of Gallup have often been at the forefront of state policies to curb alcohol abuse. For example, residents and lawmakers in the late 1980s demanded the Legislature allow them to impose an excise tax on liquor to pay for alcohol abuse treatment.
Weeks after the new law went into effect in July, Western Refining Retail LLC sued the state over what it said was an “arbitrary” choice to ban liquor at gas stations in just McKinley County. At the time, the company owned 10 Speedway gas stations in the county.
The lawsuit pointed out that Rio Arriba County has similar problems with alcohol abuse and deaths, and the rest of the state has its issues, as well. Targeting McKinley County was unconstitutional, attorneys argued, and would cause “a severe economic impact” on its stores in the county.
The company has since sold off its stations in McKinley County, and new owners 7-11 withdrew the lawsuit. Representatives from 7-11 did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Western Refining Retail.
Now that the law’s impacts have become clear and the lawsuit is withdrawn, Muñoz said he plans to introduce new legislation in the upcoming, 30-day session to impose new restrictions on alcohol sales.
“Now we know what [gas stations’] main resource for income was, and that’s alcohol sales,” he said. “So we can now begin to look at restricting those.”
He wants to reimpose the ban on alcohol sales on Sunday in McKinley County, he said. He said he didn’t realize that the Liquor Control Act reform would mean alcohol sales could resume Sundays in the county.
“That was an unintended consequence that we didn’t catch in the legislation,” he said. “We didn’t know it would repeal in McKinley.”
But he has no other reforms in mind, he said, adding that the session will have pressing issues around spending federal stimulus money and other priorities, so he’s not sure there will be much appetite to revisit liquor policy.
‘It’s super inconvenient’
Jennifer Brown and her husband, Jerry, now have to drive 54 miles round-trip to get gas, after Red Rock Liquor Package and Food Mart closed in Smith Lake near their home.
The trip used to be about 12 miles. Jerry Brown regularly needs five gallons of gas to run his chain saw, Jennifer said.
The station stopped selling gas without any notice in July, she said, and she saw three or four people stranded on the side of the road each day for the first few days.
“We saw many people run out of gas, just people on the side of the road,” she said. “We almost did that first day too, but we eked it into town with about five miles to go till empty.”
She said the lack of a close gas station continues to make travel difficult for her and her neighbors.
“It is not like the end of our life, but it’s super inconvenient,” she said. “And it did not do what it had anticipated it would do.”
This story was originally published in Source New Mexico — sourcenm.com — which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news provider.