Say no to state liquor stores and vote yes on I-1183 | Bryan Myrick
September 15, 2011 · 3:08 PM
Proponents of privatizing liquor sales are taking another swing at breaking up the state-run monopoly of the spirits business.
This year — unlike last year’s ballot on which two similar enough liquor privatization measures collided to produce voter confusion — the Yes on Initiative 1183 campaign has the good fortune to run in clear waters. This November, voters can — and should — make a clean decision to get the government out of the liquor business while also giving state and local governments a much-needed revenue boost.
Under I-1183, the Liquor Control Board will continue to regulate the sale of spirits, but will no longer monopolize liquor sales. In the place of more than 300 state-run liquor stores, retail stores with more than 10,000 square feet of enclosed space could apply for a license to sell liquor. Gas stations, corner variety beverage marts and convenience stores will still not be permitted to sell spirits.
I-1183 will also reform the state’s distribution and sales laws for wine, improving the market for hundreds of small and medium-sized wineries in Washington.
Why privatize liquor sales? It is hard to dismiss the instant curb appeal of I-1183.
The prospect of one less stop amid a busy schedule of winter holiday entertaining or paying a bit less for a liter of one’s favorite spirit are not unimportant reasons to vote for privatization. But the benefits of I-1183 go well beyond small convenience. In the final analysis, I-1183 promotes efficiency and choice, two values highly prized by private enterprise, while allowing government — state, cities and counties — to continue getting their cut.
Those buying spirits in Washington state will still pay one of the highest liquor taxes in the nation, a two-stage toll on imbibers consisting of the liquor liter tax ($3.77 per liter) and liquor sales tax of 20.5 percent. But the miracle of the free market is that without increasing liquor taxes, the revenues from liquor sales could substantially increase after privatization.
The Washington Research Council estimates that I-1183 could result in $443 million in new revenue over the next six years, $279 million of which would go to local governments. Even using the low-side estimate of the state’s Office of Financial Management, the revenue boost is close to $400 million.
I-1183 makes good fiscal sense, it will get taxpayers out of the liquor sales business and it will allow the free market to operate so that customers, sellers and suppliers can each make better choices. The swift and responsible privatization of I-1183 will realign the liquor sales industry in our state, putting businesses back in charge of doing business and leaving the regulation to the regulators.
You can rest assured; there will still be plenty of regulation of liquor in Washington. Stores meeting the Liquor Control Board’s standards (primarily, stores with more than 10,000 square feet of enclosed retail space) will have to apply for a license to sell spirits.
Just as the WSLCB regulates how alcohol can be marketed in restaurants, bars and taverns, so should we expect that the regulators will not permit a Wild West approach to liquor sales in retail stores. (In other words, do not expect to see “buy one, get one free” sales of your favorite premium brand vodka in your neighborhood supermarket.)
Despite its benefits, opponents of I-1183 suggest there are significant downsides to privatization. Aside from the inevitable loss of jobs when the state’s warehouse and stores close, one claim made by No on I-1183 is that selling liquor this way will lead to an increase in underage drinking and consequently more alcohol-related fatalities.
But this contention does not mesh well with studies that find the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities follow the consumption of beer, not liquor or wine. It stands to reason that cracking down on markets selling beer to minors and adults purchasing for underage drinkers, not limiting the consumer choices of responsible adults, will have the greatest impact on underage drinking.
Promoting convenience, efficiency and choice are at the heart of the campaign to privatize liquor sales. Voters have routinely sent the message to their elected officials to take those values seriously and should do so again this November.
Bryan Myrick, a lifelong resident of the Eastside, has a degree in political science and communications from the University of Washington and currently publishes the Northwest Daily Marker, a blog on local and national politics.