Although it wasn't until Thursday that the last legal hurdle was cleared, privatized liquor sales is a reality as of Friday, June 1, in Washington. Seven-plus decades of state monopolized liquor sales and distribution are consigned to history books.
This is good for many reasons, starting with the fact that it's what the people want. Voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 1183 last year. But it's also a good thing because the heavy hands of state government have been removed from an enterprise that all along belonged in the free market. That's the way most states handle it, and that's why The Columbian has consistently supported dismantling the state monopoly.
As Cami Joner reported in Sunday's Columbian, privatized liquor sales in Clark County are expected to be conducted in more than 70 outlets. That's a dramatic increase from 14 state-run and state-contracted local liquor stores under the previous outdated system that had been rooted in the 1930s.
As logical and overdue as this transition seems, it almost didn't happen. It wasn't until Thursday that the state Supreme Court upheld I-1183 as constitutional. That's cutting it close. Another troubling reality: It only happened through a 5-4 vote of the high court. This immensely complex conversion, which has been months in the making, came within one vote of being tossed into finish-line chaos.
Fortunately, common sense prevailed. The court's majority opinion correctly maintains that I-1183 does not violate state rules requiring initiatives to address only one subject. Liquor sales -- and revenue raised by fees imposed by I-1183 – are related topics. In fact, even one of the dissenting judges agrees there is a "rational unity" between liquor regulation and public safety (which will receive money raised by a 10 percent distributor fee and a 17 percent retail fee on liquor sales). That revenue, estimated at about $10 million annually, is believed to have been a driving force in the success of I-1183.
A few questions remain unanswered. Will the cost of liquor increase because of the fees? That's hard to say, because it's difficult to predict how prices will be driven down by the increased competition and volume sales discounts. Will consumers in Clark County flock to Oregon to buy liquor? Again, it's too soon to say. But here's what we do know: The answers will come from the private sector, and not from the state government. Whether you drink alcohol or not, the value of the open market should be appreciated.
The state liquor control board is not going away. It will still license liquor retailers and set alcohol policy for the state. But the agency has been cut from 1,400 employees to about 200. That workforce reduction is offset — although it's uncertain to what extent — by the increase in liquor-industry jobs in the private sector.
This transition will not be easy, and it'll take awhile to get the wrinkles ironed out. But the ironing chore will be worth the long-term benefits.