Opinion on I-1100 and I-1105: Privatizing Liquor Sales

Initiative Measure No. 1100 concerns liquor (beer, wine and spirits). The measure would close state liquor stores; authorize sale, distribution, and importation of spirits by private parties; and repeal certain requirements that govern the business operations of beer and wine distributers and producers.

Initiative Measure No. 1105 concerns liquor (beer, wine and spirits). The measure would close all state liquor stores and license private parties to sell or distribute spirits. It would revise laws concerning regulation, taxation and government revenues from distribution and sale of spirits.

The state government should not be operating private retail stores absent some important reason. The fact that Washington State does is (I assume) a vestige of the repeal of Prohibition, combined with a large amount of inertia. It does make getting liquor for minors somewhat more difficult, but not exactly because security at these stores is tight. They do have a better record at refusing sales to minors. But I think the real reason state liquor stores do better is that they aren’t so busy and there aren’t too many of them. The stores have a high markup, and limited selection. As some bars have noted, they cannot get some liquors for their businesses and service is not good.

There are two initiatives on the ballot that would get the state out of the liquor selling business. If both pass, how things will shake out will be anyone’s guess.

I-1100 is the Costco sponsored initiative. It removes a lot of the regulation on liquor sales as well as getting the state out of it. Places that have a license to sell beer and wine could get a liquor sales license, and the state would be limited in what it could regulate with regards to liquor sales. The key part for Costco is that it eliminates the current three tier system: manufacturer, distributor and retailer. As a retailer, they could skip the distributor and go straight to the manufacturer. The measure retains the current taxes on liquor.

I-1105 requires the state to close its stores, but retains more of the regulatory framework. The three-tier system would remain in place. Retailers must by from distributors. And distributors cannot offer better prices to one customer that to another, though they could offer volume discounts. Costco doesn’t like it, because they would like to negotiate lower prices directly from manufacturers that aren’t available to other retailers. The WSLCB would create a new license for retailers and establish the rules for it. For instance, they refrain from issuing new licenses in areas that are saturated with liquor sellers. The measure would remove most taxes on liquor sales (not sure about sales taxes) and direct the WSLCB to propose a new tax to the legislature.

I will be voting for I-1105 and against I-1100. While I think anti-drinking goes too far sometimes (like freaking out over restaurants that allow patrons to drink in their sidewalk seating), the fact that liquor is intoxicating means we should be exercising some discretion in how we sell it. I-1100 doesn’t allow for that. For instance, I-1105 could allow the WSLCB to require that liquor be sold in separated areas from other goods, while I-1100 does not. I’m not so keen on the requirement for three tiers, though I do like the requirement that distributors offer uniform prices. I’m agnostic toward the tax change. It comes down to the ability to regulate liquor retailers.

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