OLYMPIA – Washington voters likely will get a chance to privatize the state's Prohibition-era monopoly on hard liquor sales this fall, now that an initiative campaign backed by Costco has submitted a flood of signed voter petitions.
Supporters of Initiative 1100 delivered boxes of petitions to state elections officials Wednesday representing more than 390,000 voter signatures, according to the campaign. About 241,000 valid voter signatures are required for an issue to qualify for the ballot.
State officials expect to verify the petition drive in early July. If approved by Washington voters in November, I-1100 would dramatically overhaul the state government monopoly on hard liquor sales and distribution.
Washington is one of 18 states that exercise broad powers over wholesale liquor distribution. Some of those states also are involved in retail sales; Washington has staterun liquor stores along with outlets operated by private contractors.
If I-1100 passes, the state distribution and sales system would be abolished in favor of private businesses. Retailers with licenses to sell beer and wine would be eligible to add a liquor license, while state price controls and bans against volume discounts would be repealed. Retailers also would gain the ability to buy directly from manufacturers.
I-1100 supporters, calling themselves Modernize Washington, say the measure would give consumers a more modern liquor-buying system while also spurring private-sector jobs and getting liquor store workers off the government payroll.
Opponents point out that eliminating state-mandated price markups could cost millions of dollars that flow to a broad array of state programs. But I-1100 spokeswoman Sharon Gilpin responded that the Legislature retains the ability to raise “sin” taxes, and has shown a willingness to do so in the past.
Issaquah-based Costco Wholesale Corp. has contributed about $735,000 to the campaign, along with roughly $107,000 in other donated assistance – including the use of staff to collect petition signatures in its stores.
Costco has unsuccessfully fought the state’s existing liquor system for years, both in the Legislature and the federal courts. If I-1100 passes, the retailer would be able to apply its considerable buying power and supply system to selling hard liquor, as it does in other states with different liquor laws.
But I-1100 has many opponents and faces a rival initiative that also is aimed at privatizing the liquor system. That measure, Initiative 1105, would privatize the liquor retail system but keep in place state laws that protect liquor distributors – the main financial supporters of I-1105.
The I-1105 campaign still is collecting signatures but expects to hit the 300,000 mark and make the fall ballot, spokeswoman Charla Neuman said Wednesday.
Neuman criticized I-1100 as too sweeping, saying its wide-open approach to liquor licenses could quickly lead to “more liquor stores than Starbucks stores.”