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Published: Friday, May 7, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Initiative seeks end to state's liquor store system

A Snohomish man is among a group backing an initiative to repeal state control over sales.

OLYMPIA — Voters may have a chance this year to get the state out of the business of selling booze and make money in the process.
On Thursday, a new group guided by a veteran Snohomish County politico filed an initiative to end state control of hard liquor sales starting in October 2011 and allow sales of spirits at grocery stores, convenience markets and newly licensed liquor outlets.
The filing by the Washington Citizens for Liquor Reform culminates months of conversation involving Strategies 360 owner Ron Dotzauer of Snohomish and representatives of major supermarket retailers.
Charla Neuman, a campaign consultant and former Dotzauer employee who filed the paperwork, would not identify any retailers in the coalition.
“We will announce those details in a few weeks,” she said.
While Washington allows beer and wine sales in grocery and convenience stores, it is one of 18 states with broad powers over wholesale liquor distribution. The powers date to post-Prohibition concerns of legislators about the spread of illicit liquor sales.
Today there are 161 state-owned liquor stores and 154 contract stores. The Legislature approved opening another five state and 10 contract stores by June 30, 2013.
Liquor sales at existing locations netted $332.7 million for state coffers in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009.
Under the measure filed Thursday, the state Liquor Control Board would oversee transition of control into the hands of the private sector. By July 1, 2011 it would devise a plan for selling or auctioning up to 1,000 retail liquor licenses and retailers with approved licenses could begin selling spirits by Oct. 1 next year.
The state would be required to sell its inventory and warehouse by April 1, 2012, which the coalition estimates could net $90 million.
Neuman said privatization under the measure could bring the state an additional $100 million over five years.
“The No. 1 motivator for this effort is to create revenue for the state while its budget is crashing,” she said. “If it doesn’t raise state revenues it’s not worth doing.”
This is the third initiative dealing with privatizing liquor sales to be filed this year. A Kitsap County woman turned in two similarly crafted measures last month.
Brian Smith, spokesman for the state Liquor Control Board, said the agency is not taking a position on any of the measures.
Proponents of the initiatives laud privatization as a source of new revenue for the state, and they base their conclusions on a State Auditor’s report citing such potential with an expanded availability of liquor, he said.
“As the report points out, if you dramatically open up the number of outlets selling liquor and you dramatically increase the amount of liquor you sell you will make more money,” he said.
That’s a chief concern of those in an opposition campaign formed last month when the first initiative was filed.
“We oppose any effort to privatize the liquor system in Washington state,” said Gabriela Quintana, coordinator of the Keep Our Kids Safe campaign.
She said Washington’s existing system helps keep liquor out of the hands of minors while returning a good profit to the state. She said privatization will increase minors’ access to hard liquor.
She leads a coalition that includes the Washington Community Action Network and several labor unions including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21, which represents liquor store clerks and assistant managers. There are roughly 900 employees in the state-owned stores.
For any of the initiatives to qualify, backers must turn in 241,153 signatures of registered voters to the Secretary of State by July 2.
Neuman’s group faces a big hurdle because it may not be able to start circulating petitions for at least two weeks.
“We will have four to five weeks to do a massive effort and we’re confident we’ll have the resources,” she said.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;
Story tags » RetailStateLegislatureUnionsEmployeesLocalElectionsState elections

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