In Our View: Look at Liquor Again

Although voters said ‘No’ to privatization, legislators should explore other changes

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Now that voters have rejected two ballot measures that would have privatized state liquor sales, the easy response by legislators would be to shrug and exclaim, “Well, that takes care of that!” But voters don’t expect their legislators to take the easy way out, and there’s ample evidence that the state liquor business still could be improved.

Granted, full privatization of the state’s 330 liquor stores (eight in Vancouver and one each in Washougal, Amboy, Battle Ground, Camas and Ridgefield) appears a nonstarter for now. But that doesn’t mean the work of the Liquor Control Board or the Senate Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee cannot be changed, modernized or made more efficient for taxpayers and consumers. Perhaps voters were saying, “No, not now” or “No, not in this way.” That possibility should be explored when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 10.

At least two legislators — Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach — are planning to reintroduce bills that would alter the way the LCB does business. Alexander wants to make Washington’s system more like Oregon’s, where all liquor stores are private stores that contract with the state. Currently, about half of the liquor stores in Washington are contract stores. And, as The Associated Press reported, Sheldon wants to close all state liquor stores and the state distribution center, and auction off franchise agreements to the highest bidder. That could include grocery stores.

It helps to remember that the Nov. 2 ballot measures were not written by the people or by their lawmakers. Initiatives 1100 and 1105 were written by special-interest groups, the first by a Costco-supported group of retailers and the second by distributors, or wholesalers. A recent editorial in The Spokesman-Review of Spokane explained how what happened on Election Day differs from what could happen in the Legislature: “The problem with initiatives is that they are written in private and put on the ballot, unalterable, for an up-or-down decision. In Olympia, on the other hand, elected lawmakers introduce bills that are open to public inspection, subject to public hearings with input from constituents, amended in open committee meetings and taken to the House and Senate floors for open debates, more amendments and extended fine-tuning.” The Spokane paper says this process “allows deliberation and modification under public oversight and produces more discerning legislation.”

We acknowledge that in tough economic times legislators are hesitant to reform a liquor-sales system that yielded $370 million last year to state and local governments. But state Auditor Brian Sonntag has said that privatizing liquor sales could increase state revenue by as much as $350 million over five years. Next month would be a good time for legislators to ask Sonntag for details on how this could be accomplished. Sonntag likely would remind them of another of his projections, that the state could make $33 million by selling the huge liquor distribution center in Seattle, auctioning retail licenses and increasing the number of stores to 372.

Finding sanctuary in the status quo of state-monopolized liquor sales is the wrong approach, especially when 32 states have embraced private-sector influences. “No” back in November does not mean “No” forever. In the absence of full reform of state liquor sales, legislators should keep looking for less dramatic ways to improve the system.