Politics & Government

New vote may privatize liquor

Washington voters are all but certain to be asked for a second consecutive year to close all state liquor stores and let private companies sell booze.

The campaign for Initiative 1183 turned in more than 354,000 signatures gathered over just three weeks, likely enough to qualify it for the statewide ballot in the fastest time ever.

The campaign said 150,000 of the signatures came from customers of Costco, which has carried the campaign on its back with $950,000 worth of contributions.

Privatization would be worth the expense to the company and other large grocers, which could stock their shelves with spirits as their counterparts in 32 states do.

They’re joined by restaurants and bars, which expect competition among private sellers to bring down Washington’s highest-in-the-nation liquor prices.

“Our members have simply been after having more choice and competition for their business,” said Bruce Beckett, government affairs director for the Washington Restaurant Association.

Voters rejected two ballot measures last year to privatize liquor. Unions and health advocates are lining up a new coalition to try to defeat this one, arguing it’s a rehash.

“I just don’t understand why Costco isn’t taking no for an answer,” said Jim Cooper, president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention, part of the coalition. He called it a “corporate, big-box initiative.” But supporters made changes calculated to tamp down opposition, with an eye toward key complaints from last year:

 • That local governments would lose revenue. Instead, 1-1183 would add to local tax collections, supporters promise. They estimate tens of millions of dollars a year for state and local governments, on top of $200 million raised up front by licensing fees and the sell-off of government stores and facilities.

 • That beer distributors would lose their place as middlemen between manufacturers and retailers.

Beer interests bankrolled last year’s opposition campaign, so this year’s initiative aims to steer clear of changing their status even as it allows retailers to buy hard liquor directly from manufacturers.

 • That privatization would lead to the sale of liquor in every gas station and 7-Eleven, increasing alcohol abuse and drunken driving.

This year’s measure limits sales to big box outlets and other stores with at least 10,000 square feet of space, with allowances for smaller stores in communities that lack big retail outlets. It still could lead to a fivefold increase in the number of retail stores eligible to sell spirits, which supporters estimate would reach 1,500. Stores would need a state license first.

Cooper said more widely available booze would mean more drinking and its associated health problems.

Supporters said it works fine in most states with private stores. Voters have a chance to “bring Washington into the 21st century,” Beckett said.

Elections officials will check to make sure the initiative has the 241,153 valid signatures needed to get onto the November ballot.

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