Pro & Con: Initiative 1183 on privatizing alcohol debated

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Official ballot title

Initiative Measure No. 1183 concerns liquor: beer, wine, and spirits (hard liquor).

This measure would close state liquor stores and sell their assets; license private parties to sell and distribute spirits; set license fees based on sales; regulate licensees; and change regulation of wine distribution.

Should this measure be enacted into law?

[ ] Yes

[ ] No

(For more information, visit http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/ then click on “2011 General Election Online Voters Guide.”

YES: End of monopoly will boost competition, aid business, consumers

Like thousands of local restaurant owners across our state, I support a “Yes” vote on Initiative 1183. This measure will finally allow Washington state consumers to purchase liquor at qualified grocery or retail stores, as consumers do in 42 other states.

In my restaurants here in Vancouver, I want to provide the best possible service and selection for my customers. The restaurant business is competitive, and my customers demand it. Initiative 1183 will lower costs for local restaurants and allow us to serve our customers better.

Washington is one of the few states that still requires restaurants and consumers to buy liquor from the state government at monopoly prices set by the state government. When placing orders for my restaurant, I have a choice of suppliers for all products — except liquor. I-1183 ends the state’s monopoly on liquor sales and distribution and allows competition. For the first time, restaurants will be able to choose suppliers based on customer service, selection and price.

Under I-1183, restaurants and licensed retailers will have purchasing options that will spur competition among distributors. Under I-1183 restaurants and retailers can buy liquor and wine directly from manufacturers, and restaurants can buy liquor from licensed retail stores.

Yes on I-1183 also removes outdated restrictions on the wholesale pricing and distribution of wine. It permits wine distributors and wineries to give volume discounts and deliver to a single location for businesses that have multiple restaurants or retail stores. This means lower costs for restaurants, consumers and wineries.

All of this means greater efficiency, better product availability and wider selections at more competitive prices for both restaurants and consumers.

By getting rid of Washington’s outdated state liquor store system, I-1183 reduces state government costs and saves taxpayers nearly $100 million a year. And, by getting rid of the state’s huge markups on liquor and replacing them with licensing fees that retailers and distributors pay as a percentage of sales, I-1183 will provide vitally needed funding for public services, including our schools, health care and public safety services — without raising taxes.

The Washington Office of Financial Management estimates I-1183 will generate an estimated $400 million more than the current system over the first six years. At a time when more state budget shortfalls are being predicted, I-1183 will help prevent deeper cuts in essential services. For the city of Vancouver, that translates to an additional $6 million or more over the next six years. This money will go into the city’s coffers to pay for needed services — perhaps to fund more police or to hire more teachers.

Safeguards

Initiative 1183 dedicates a portion of new revenues specifically to local police, fire and emergency services in communities throughout our state. It strengthens liquor laws and enforcement. It doubles penalties for selling liquor to minors, mandates new employee training and supervision requirements for stores that sell liquor, and provides new revenues for local law enforcement and other public safety services in local communities. By limiting liquor licenses to medium and large grocery and retail stores, I-1183 prevents liquor from being sold at gas stations and small convenience stores.

A yes vote on 1183 is supported by hundreds of Washington citizens, businesses and organizations representing thousands of Washington employers across our state. Among the many organizations endorsing I-1183 are the Washington Restaurant Association, the Association of Washington Business, Family Wineries of Washington State, Washington Retail Association and Northwest Grocery Association.

I encourage The Columbian readers to look into the facts by visiting YESon1183.com.

I hope you’ll agree with me that I-1183 is the responsible choice for finally getting state government out of the liquor business, reducing government waste and using more of our liquor revenues to fund public services.

Please join me in voting YES on Initiative 1183.

Tom Owens is the owner of Tommy O’s Restaurants in Vancouver.

No: Initiative puts excessive profit ahead of community safety

Initiative 1183 is a corporate-backed measure that would put excessive profit ahead of community safety. It would dismantle our current system of controlling the sales and distribution of liquor and allow at least four times as many retailers to sell hard alcohol.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Washingtonians strongly rejected two liquor privatization initiatives last year, but Costco is back at it again.

The company spent millions of dollars for signature gatherers and TV ads to convince you that I-1183 is different this year, and we will be a better state if you approve it. It’s not, and we won’t. In fact, the coalition opposed to I-1183 includes Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, Castle Rock Police Chief Bob Heuer, Cowlitz County Prosecutor Sue Baur and Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson.

How many outlets?

Supporters of I-1183 can’t answer a simple question: Exactly how many outlets will be able to sell liquor? They say it will be only current liquor stores and groceries larger than 10,000 square feet. However, they concede I-1183 contains a major loophole. The initiative says the Liquor Control Board “shall not deny” a liquor license to small convenience stores and mini-marts if there is no other liquor seller in the “trade area.” But the initiative doesn’t define “trade area.” If two stores are currently allowed to sell beer and wine across the street from each other, are they in different trade areas? No one knows.

If we’re going to destroy our current system, we need to understand what will replace it. I-1183 raises more questions than it answers. What we do know is this: at least 1,400 stores will be allowed to sell liquor under I-1183, without a penny for more liquor compliance officers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended against liquor privatization because it caused a sharp increase in alcohol consumption and problem drinking. Our state stores have one of the best enforcement rates in the country when it comes to checking identifications. According to Liquor Control Board compliance checks, grocery stores sell to minors who try to buy alcohol one time out of four attempts. Studies show teens don’t drink for the taste, they drink for the buzz. And if they can get their hands on the hard stuff, they will.

And here’s another statistic: alcohol kills more kids than any other drug combined.

Beware of fish stories

Supporters of I-1183 say their measure strengthens penalties. But we know from experience that some stores make money by repeatedly selling to minors, take the fines and even get their liquor license pulled. Then they open the same business with friends or relatives listed as owners and they continue to sell to minors.

In their efforts to convince you that I-1183 is a good idea, its boosters say it will raise millions of dollars for local government without raising taxes. When someone wants your vote by telling fish stories like that, beware. In order to keep the promise of handing more money to government, the markup for liquor would rise to an astronomical 72 percent, much higher than it is today. That hurts small businesses and restaurants that are already struggling in this economy.

Finally, let’s look at why Costco is bankrolling this initiative. Costco is pouring millions of dollars into I-1183 because it gives them tax and distribution advantages that are aren’t available to smaller players. That’s why I-1183 is opposed by the state’s association of independent grocers, the Washington Food Industry Association.

I hope you’ll join our coalition of faith, business and public safety leaders and vote “No” on I-1183.

Jim Cooper is president of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention (http://wasavp.org).