Last year Washington voters rejected two ballot measures that would’ve privatized liquor sales and distribution in the state. The Columbian endorsed both of those measures. A similar measure — Initiative 1183 — appears on the Nov. 8 ballot, and we again enthusiastically recommend aligning Washington with more than 30 other states that have properly recognized the government’s role. It’s not to sell liquor and wine but to regulate that commerce. No more than we would expect the state to distribute and sell cigarettes (at exorbitantly marked-up prices, mind you), Washingtonians should not expect the state government to sell spirits.
Voters who opposed liquor privatization last year should recognize at least two refinements that I-1183 brings to this issue. First, it would generate a projected $400 million in new revenue for state and local governments (police, fire protection, schools and health care). Opponents quickly point to a 27 percent tax that would be levied on sellers, to which The Seattle Times correctly responded that the tax “replaces the state’s markup of 52 percent” that exists under the current system.
Second, I-1183 would exclude small convenience stores (with a few exceptions) from liquor sales. Opponents quickly claim the opposite, and hoist the huge warning about liquor and wine sales in minimarts, but here’s the real scoop: I-1183 calls for liquor and wine to be sold only in stores of 10,000 square feet or more. This would include most major grocery stores and big-box retailers. The exception would be in rural areas where no such store exists, and as The Times pointed out, most of those areas “are already served by small private stores under contract to the Liquor Board, which would continue under I-1183.”
Clearly, the opponents’ two most terrifying horror stories should be dismissed. Why, then, are the warnings issued? Consider the source. Much of the opposition’s funding comes from the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc., which profits from the status quo orchestrated by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
And when looking at funding for the “Yes” campaign, consider also the source. The Association of Washington Business and the Washington Restaurant Association are joined by numerous other groups representing family wineries, retailers and grocers. I-1183 also is endorsed by The Seattle Times, The Herald in Everett and other publications.
Washington has the highest liquor taxes in the nation, and as we pointed out last year, allowing the government to mandate massive markups from distiller to wholesaler, and from wholesaler to retailer, “is a socialistic scheme and bureaucratic briar patch.”
Would greater access to liquor increase illegal sales to minors? That’s another dire warning you’ll hear on frantic TV and radio commercials. But the truth is, I-1183 actually increases punishment attached to state liquor regulations. If passed, it would double penalties for selling spirits to minors.
Washington’s antiquated state monopoly of the liquor and wine business is rooted in the distant past, bolstered by attitudes that were born during the era of Prohibition. It’s time to bring that system into the 21st century, to recognize that booze is both a thriving business and a legitimate concern. In the first case, let the marketplace rule. In the second case, let the state government regulate and enforce. But we shouldn’t depend on the government for both.