It sounded like a good idea: Break the link between booze for drinking and gasoline for driving in McKinley County, which traditionally has New Mexico’s worst statistics in terms of DWI crashes and alcohol-related deaths.
In practice, it has shown you can’t take for granted which option people will choose.
Because in this case, at least so far, booze is winning.
Since July 1, sales of hard liquor have been banned at McKinley County gas stations or convenience stores that sell fuel. The gas stations can still sell beer and wine – but not whiskey, vodka, tequila or other spirits. The ban was imposed by a one-paragraph amendment to the sweeping overhaul of state liquor laws passed by the Legislature in 2020.
The jury’s still out on whether the ban, pushed by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, is helping bring down his county’s tragic DWI numbers. Available data for January through July shows 32% of the county’s traffic deaths involved alcohol – eight fatalities.
But the law did have an immediate impact on locals and tourists who want gas.
At least three stores in McKinley County have stopped selling gas to circumvent the ban. It turns out that, at least for some businesses, selling high-octane alcohol is a lot more lucrative than selling gasoline.
Choosing to sell spirits over gas was “a no-brainer,” the owner of El Sabino store said. He said his station, about 25 miles south of Gallup near Zuni Pueblo, makes about $8,000 a day in hard liquor sales but just $2,000 a day on gasoline. The nearest pumps still are 17 and 21 miles away.
Muñoz commented: “They were just really liquor stores with a gas pump outside.” He said one gas station in the county sells 80 gallons of vodka a day.
The problem now is that some folks who’ve depended on rural stations for fuel instead of Ketel One are out of luck. A couple who formerly filled up at a “package and food mart” store that no longer sells gas near Smith Lake, north of Thoreau, now have to drive 54 miles round trip for gas, including for the husband’s chainsaw, instead of 12 miles. “It is not like the end of our life, but it’s super inconvenient,” customer Jennifer Brown said. “And it did not do what it had anticipated it would do.”
The creation of filling station deserts in parts of McKinley County sounds like a case of unintended consequences, but Muñoz told a reporter for Source New Mexico the gas stations’ decision to close “wasn’t unexpected.”
He said it represents a choice owners made to put profits above an essential service. Owners say that they are saving their businesses – and the jobs they offer – and that liquor is a legal product customers should have the right to buy.
Muñoz isn’t suggesting he will back away from the either-or ban. Instead, he said, he plans to introduce measures in the session that starts in January to impose new restrictions on alcohol sales, including reimposing a ban on Sunday sales in McKinley County. “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.”
Muñoz does seem to have exposed just how important hard alcohol sales are to some retailers. Weeks after the new law went into effect, Western Refining Retail LLC sued the state over its “arbitrary” choice to ban liquor at gas stations in just McKinley County, asserting the loss of spirit sales would cause “severe economic hardship” for its stores. At the time, the company owned 10 Speedway gas stations in the county. Western Refining has since sold those stations, and new owner 7-Eleven withdrew the lawsuit.
Still, despite his best intentions to attack drunken driving, Muñoz’s measure is causing problems for McKinley County residents who have lost reasonable access to fuel for their cars, trucks and machinery. It’s a tough call, but Muñoz needs to put the either-or law in reverse, because the stores he was targeting are still selling spirits.
Meanwhile, there may be ways to plug service-station gaps. Could the Zuni and Navajo tribal governments establish gas stations in McKinley County near where liquor sellers have covered their fuel pumps?
No matter what happens next, one thing will remain the same: There are no easy solutions to New Mexico’s devastating DWI problem.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.