State faces new lawsuit on liquor privatization

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Updated: June 22, 2012, 9:12 PM

 

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YAKIMA — Supporters of an initiative that privatized liquor sales in Washington have filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s rules for implementing it, claiming that regulators circumvented the measure by arbitrarily restricting wholesale distribution and the pricing of wine and spirits.

The complaints center on rules imposed by the Washington Liquor Control Board over retail sales to restaurants and distributors’ deliveries, among other things.

A coalition of initiative backers, including the Washington Restaurant Association, the Northwest Grocery Association and warehouse giant Costco Wholesale Corp., filed the suit Thursday in Thurston County Superior Court.

“Thousands of small businesses throughout the state will be harmed by the LCB’s rules, which impede competition and transfer market power away from the consumer,” Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the restaurant group, said Friday.

“We recognize how difficult this transition has been for the LCB, and are hopeful they will reverse course and fix these erroneous rules,” he said.

The Liquor Control Board declined comment through a spokesman, citing the pending litigation.

The case is the latest in a series of lawsuits over how Washington regulates spirits. The state had tightly controlled the distribution and sale of liquor since the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, until voters approved an initiative last fall kicking it out of the business.

Initiative 1183 allows stores larger than 10,000 square feet, and some smaller stores, to sell spirits. The measure was the costliest in state history thanks to a $22 million investment from Costco.

Under the measure, no single sale from a retailer to a restaurant can exceed 24 liters. The Liquor Control Board interpreted that language as 24 liters per day, and the lawsuit challenges that ruling.

Most restaurants order inventory on a weekly basis, and the volume restriction does not allow retailers to fairly compete for business, the plaintiffs maintain.

The lawsuit also challenges rules restricting deliveries and imposing fees, and alleges discrimination against international manufacturers’ ability to supply retailers directly.

The new rules benefit two large, out-of-state distributors, the coalition said in a release. Southern Wine & Spirits and Young’s Market dominate the market in Washington.

“These anti-competitive rules must be changed in order for the market that the voters adopted to be allowed to develop,” said Joe Gillian, president of the Northwest Grocery Association.

Nearly 20 states control the retail or wholesale liquor business. Some, such as Iowa and West Virginia, have relinquished partial control in recent years, but Washington is the first in that group to abandon the liquor business entirely.