Voters quickly get another shot at at privatizing liquor sales

July 15, 2011 

Voters better hold onto their seats. We’re about to embark on an exciting adventure of “Liquor Privatization 2” – a replay of last fall’s spirited campaign about spirits.

It’s a bit of a surprise that voters are being asked to weigh in on a citizen initiative to end the state’s monopoly on hard liquor sales so soon after they rejected two ballot measures based on the same premise. Usually when the voters turn thumbs down on a measure, it’s several years before the issue is repackaged and resubmitted for an up or down vote.

That’s not the case with liquor privatization because sponsors of Initiative 1183 have used paid signature gatherers to collect what appears to be sufficient signatures to qualify their measure for a vote in the November general election. Secretary of State Sam Reed’s staff is checking the signatures to ensure that 241,153 registered voters signed the petition. Supporters say they collected more than 354,000 signatures in three weeks, a remarkable achievement.

Last year, voters were asked their preferences on two separate measures. Both would have gotten the state out of the liquor sales and distribution business.

Initiative 1100 was pushed by Costco, the wholesale warehouse company. It would have allowed retailers to negotiate with both liquor manufacturers and distributors for volume discounts. It would have rolled back the state’s markup on liquor, but left the tax structure in place.

More than 53 percent of the voters rejected the Costco privatization measure.

Initiative 1105 was even more far sweeping and would have required retailers to use distributors. It would have eliminated state liquor taxes and called upon the state Legislature to adopt new taxes to fill the void and raise an additional $100 million.

More than 65 percent of the voters rejected I-1105.

Opponents to both measures launched credible campaigns. Law enforcement and public safety advocates came out in strong opposition saying the privatization measures would lead to more liquor outlets, expanded sales, more drunken driving and more underage drinking.

Under either initiative, the number of liquor outlets would have increased dramatically, from 315 statewide to an estimated 3,300. Hard liquor would have been available from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.

Those strong public safety concerns, coupled with the prospect of lost tax revenue at a time of a $5 billion state budget shortfall, were credited with torpedoing the two liquor privatization measures.

But advocates for ending the state’s liquor monopoly are undeterred. They are back with Initiative 1183.

Backed again by Costco, along with restaurants and grocers, I-1183 would end the state-run monopoly on sale of liquor. The measure is less sweeping than the plan rejected last year, but it would open the door for liquor sales in large warehouse stores and end the state’s wholesale distribution monopoly.

A separate legislative mandate is under way to possibly put the state distribution system out for competitive bid.

In Initiative 1183 backers say “the state government monopoly on liquor distribution and liquor stores in Washington and the state government regulations that arbitrarily restrict the wholesale distribution and pricing of wine are outdated, inefficient, and costly to local taxpayers, consumers, distributors, and retailers.”

The measure calls for the state to auction off its liquor stores and distribution system. It requires that new retail liquor stores be at least 10,000 square feet in size.

Opponents were quick to criticize the new initiative.

“What part of ‘no’ doesn’t Costco understand?” asked Jim Cooper, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention and the chief executive at Together, the Thurston County youth empowerment organization.

“There is no grassroots groundswell for liquor privatization in the state,” Cooper said. Noting that the fundamentals have not changed since last year’s rejection of the two initiatives, Cooper said, “I-1183 shares the same flaws of the previous initiatives, hurting public safety.”

The spirited debate is on. Voters must hold on, pay attention, listen to arguments on both sides of the issue and, most importantly, cast an informed ballot in November.

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