In Our View: The Issue Won’t Die

Yes, voters rejected privatizing liquor sales, but other improvements could be made

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Washington voters spoke, well, robustly to say the least, last fall when they rejected two initiatives that would have privatized state liquor sales. Initiative 1100 (written by retailers), was opposed by 53.4 percent of voters statewide (55.8 percent in Clark County). And Initiative 1105 (the wholesalers’ proposal) was buried by 65.0 percent of voters (60.0 percent in Clark County). Both measures were endorsed by The Columbian, and the outcomes prove what we’ve said all along, that endorsements are merely opinions, nothing more, and certainly not predictions.

Still, the issue won’t go away, and we’ll speculate about a couple of reasons. First, with 32 other states privatizing liquor sales, Washington’s minority status cannot be ignored. (Then again, only two states ban self-serve gas pumps, but that doesn’t seem to bother Oregonians.) Second, retailers cannot be expected to give up their battle to increase profits, especially during this economic crisis. One private-sector effort to focus attention on this issue is brewing this year, and we’ll address that later in the editorial. But first, we’ll point to some improvements proposed by the state’s Liquor Control Board, despite the voters’ endorsement of the status quo back on Nov. 2.

The Olympian newspaper last week reported that the Liquor Control Board wants to “open two high-volume specialty stores in urban areas” and “co-locate up to five liquor stores inside existing retail outlets” much like coffee shops or branch banks that operate inside grocery stores. The newspaper also reported that the board wants “to standardize store hours across the state, closing at 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday,” as well as “start a gift-card program and allow web-based ordering for pickup at stores.”

It’s encouraging that the thunderous double-No voiced by voters has not obliterated the opportunity to improve the state’s system of liquor distribution and sales.

These and other proposed changes could add almost $6 million to state liquor revenues in 2011-2013 and almost $40 million over the next six years.

As for the private-sector reform efforts, www.publicola.com reported Friday that Costco is working on a liquor privatization bill that resembles I-1100 in that retailers “could buy directly from distilleries and retailers could become distributors.” But there are two differences to last year’s initiative. Eligibility to buy liquor licenses would be limited to retail spaces with a minimum 9,000 square feet. This means there would only be about 1,100 licensees instead of the 3,000-plus that I-1100 would have allowed. And instead of a license fee that I-1100 proposed, retailers would pay the state 6 to 7 percent of gross receipts on liquor sales.

Despite these reform efforts, the lessons lingering from 2010 are vivid and far-reaching. As The Olympian pointed out, “Public safety is paramount. The public wanted no part of moving from 350 liquor stores statewide to more than 3,300 — twice as many stores as California.” Also, revenue is crucial, especially to a deficit-plagued state government that generates $370 million a year in revenue from liquor.

So, it appears last year’s “No!” from voters is not being interpreted as “Never! In no way!” by some public and private officials. It could be a long time before The Columbian gets excited again about privatizing state liquor distribution and sales, but there still could be improvements in the prevailing system.