In Our View: Changes Begin in Liquor Laws

After I-1183 passed last November,state’s monopoly is crumbling

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The first cracks in the crumbling of Washington state’s archaic liquor laws have appeared.On Thursday, it became legal for bars and restaurants to buy liquor directly from distilleries. That was in accordance with Initiative 1183, the liquor-privatization measure passed overwhelmingly by the state’s voters in November.

On Friday, a second crack in the old foundation occurred in Kelso. Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Warning upheld most of Initiative 1183. Further litigation is scheduled, and the matter likely will wind up in the state Supreme Court. That’s unnecessary in that the will of the voters was clear, but even the most heavily supported ballot measures often wind up in court.

Another crack in the outdated status quo is scheduled to appear in June when consumers will be able to buy liquor directly from private retailers. The Associated Press reports that more than 800 retailers statewide have applied to sell liquor, including Costco (I-1183’s chief sponsor), Fred Meyer, Albertsons and Safeway.

This evolution moves Washington toward its appropriate place among more than 30 states that have abandoned state-operated liquor sales and distribution programs. The Columbian welcomes this change. As this newspaper’s endorsement of I-1183 stated, the state’s role is “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),” should Washingtonians expect the state government to sell spirits.

Fierce resistance to the change persists, but the message from voters was resounding, and the strength of that voice around the state closely paralleled what was heard from Clark County. I-1183 passed statewide with 58.7 percent approval, and in Clark County the support for liquor privatization was 58.3 percent.

The measure allows stores larger than 10,000 square feet to sell liquor, with smaller stores also allowed to do so if there are no other outlets in the trade area. After a long string of failed attempts to privatize liquor sales in the state, I-1183 succeeded for several reasons, one being that it mandated a 10 percent distributor fee and 17 percent fee for retailers, with that money intended to compensate state and local governments for losing the state’s liquor profits. Many officials in local governments suspect the intended purpose won’t be met, and they worry that state revenue from liquor sales remains subject to the whim of budget writers in the Legislature.

None of that budgetary uncertainty, however, erases the clear fact that our state has no business monopolizing liquor sales and distribution. Enforcing laws such as prohibiting the sale of liquor to minors? Yes, by all means. But letting the marketplace rule in the sale of a legal product such as booze is the best approach, as most other states have decided.