In Our View: It's Time to Privatize

Liquor-reform opponents desperately cling to last legal hope

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The antics of some liquor-privatization opponents are enough to drive one to … exasperation.On June 1, Washington state's voter-mandated privatization of liquor sales and distribution is scheduled to take full effect. Already the Liquor Control Board has auctioned off rights to sell liquor at many state-run stores and has laid off 1,200 employees. Court challenges have been resolved. The private sector is poised to take over. All is in place to obey 58.3 percent of voters who passed Initiative 1183 last fall.

Last Thursday, though, the Washington Coalition Against Substance Abuse and Violence made a last-ditch effort to derail the whole process. Coalition lawyers argued before the Washington Supreme Court that I-1183 has two flaws. They said it violates rules that require initiatives to address only one subject, and its title misled voters.

The state Supreme Court typically takes months to publicize its opinions, and here all of Washington stands, well into the privatization process and only about six weeks from full conversion. What the desperate activists did Thursday was the modern equivalent of Custer signaling Crazy Horse for a time-out in the fourth quarter. At this point, resistance is futile. Let the inexorable process unfold.

Liquor Control Board Director Pat Kohler said, "This is kind of like a cruise ship, and it's a little hard to turn it around quickly." Kohler added that "the voters did speak pretty clearly that they wanted change." Indeed, and many of those voters knew that more than 30 states have eschewed state-operated liquor sales. Such an antiquated system makes no more sense than the state monopolizing the sale and distribution of cigarettes.

As for the legal wrangling, it's already been done, and I-1183 opponents lost. In March, Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Warning ruled that I-1183 was constitutional and proper. He reversed his earlier ruling that the initiative dealt with two subjects: privatizing liquor sales and collecting revenue for public safety. But in his second opinion, Warning said the state's rephrased argument showed that "there is a well-established -- albeit negative -- relationship between public safety and liquor. No one likes to say they're wrong, but I think I was previously."

Too bad coalition leaders aren't so astute in recognizing their own fallibility.

The Associated Press back in March quoted Costco attorney David Burman on whether the court can conclude the initiative implicitly stated that public safety and liquor are related: "Not only can it do that, but it is obligated to do that out of respect to the democratic process."

This was not the first time voters had been asked about privatizing liquor sales. They knew exactly what they were doing. Their answer was overwhelmingly and clear. We don't begrudge the coalition lawyers for clinging desperately to their last legal hope. That's sort of their job. But as vociferously as the mandate was delivered by voters, and as far into this complex transition as the state has now ventured, it would be absurd for the high court to try to intervene.