Politics & Government

State liquor monopoly under fire

OLYMPIA - Voters could see an initiative this year to break up the state government monopoly on liquor sales, although it's not clear who is behind the campaign or whether it has enough steam to make the fall ballot.

Supporters of the idea filed paperwork this week with state election officials, outlining two drafts of a possible initiative to privatize liquor sales and distribution in Washington. The sponsor was listed as Taekja Song of Redmond, with a campaign called Modernize Washington.

Washington is one of 18 “control” states that exercise broad powers over wholesale liquor distribution. Some of those states also are involved in retail sales. Washington has state-run liquor stores along with outlets operated by private contractors.

Both versions of the proposed initiative would get the state out of the liquor sales and distribution business, allowing private companies to take over those functions. One version also would chuck the “three-tier” system of liquor regulation, which puts strong controls on the wholesaling, price markup and warehousing of alcohol.

Few other details were available Friday about the campaign, which was described in a statement as “a coalition of citizens and businesses.” Political consultant Sharon Gilpin fielded questions about the campaign but declined to say who was involved because the effort was still developing.

“We’ve talked to a lot of folks in the industry – big stores, little stores, corner grocery stores, bars, clubs – for the last few months to get their ideas,” Gilpin said. “I haven’t asked all of them for permission to use their names.”

Gilpin said the campaign plans a public unveiling once the proposed measures work their way further through the vetting process for initiatives. The campaign would have to collect more than 240,000 valid petition signatures by July 2 to get on the November ballot. The initiative has not been assigned a number yet.

An opposition campaign sprang up almost immediately. It is led by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21, which represents liquor store clerks and assistant managers.

Opponents said Washington’s strong regulations help keep liquor out of the hands of minors and also return a good profit to the state, which has faced major budget deficits in recent years.

“Whoever is behind this, it should be known that there’s going to be some strong opposition,” UFCW spokesman Tom Geiger said. “It’s a bad idea.”

The Washington Food Industry Association, which represents independent grocers, has supported the notion of private liquor retail and was kept apprised of the proposed initiative’s development. But the grocers’ group is not behind the campaign and won’t decide until its next meeting whether to get involved, said Jan Gee, the association’s president.

Gee noted, however, that efforts to reform the state liquor system have not had much success in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

“I just think the time is right for very good, solid debate on this issue,” Gee said. “We unfortunately have not been able to get good, solid debates in the Legislature.”

Independent grocers would not support dropping the three-tier system, she added.