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In our view / Privatizing liquor

Don't cloud issue for voters

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Refinement continues in the effort to move state government's relationship with liquor into the 21st century -- out of the Prohibition era, really.
A new initiative being pushed by a coalition of private retailers and restaurateurs appears to be the best distillation of ideas yet, and could very well appear on this November's ballot. But a partial, vastly inferior plan passed late in the just-concluded legislative session threatens to confuse the issue. Gov. Chris Gregoire should use her veto pen to keep that from happening.
Here's what's going on.
Shortly before adjourning last week, a divided Legislature approved a bill (ESSB 5942) to seek a single private entity to lease and run the state's liquor warehouse and other distribution assets. The current structure of state-run and contracted liquor stores would remain in place. Distribution could change from a state monopoly to a private one.
Proposals would be sought, and negotiations on a long-term contract could begin later this year. It could happen that soon because the bill contains an emergency clause, which puts it into effect immediately after the governor signs it -- and prevents citizens from challenging it via referendum.
Meanwhile, a group that includes Costco, the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Restaurant Association filed a new initiative last month to take the state out of the business of selling or distributing liquor, neither of which can be considered a vital government function. It addresses key concerns of voters and local governments over Initiative 1100, which was defeated by a 53-47 margin last year.
Like I-1100, the new measure leaves the sale and distribution of hard liquor to the private sector, requiring the state to sell its distribution warehouse and other assets, and to close state liquor stores. It retains current liquor taxes and the state Liquor Control Board's role in licensing and enforcement.
Unlike I-1100, it keeps booze out of mini-marts and gas stations by limiting licenses to stores 10,000 square feet or larger, with exceptions for rural areas where no large stores exist. It increases revenues for state and local governments, with stores paying 17 percent of their gross take from liquor sales. Private distributors would pay 10 percent of their gross to the state the first two years and 5 percent thereafter.
Altogether, proponents say, that would increase public revenues by tens of millions of dollars a year, maybe more.
That's on top of the benefits regarding price, selection and efficiency that competition would bring.
Signature gathering will start soon. Voters deserve enough time to give thoughtful consideration to this initiative, free of the distraction ESSB 5942 would introduce.
The best way to deliver that is for the governor to veto the bill's emergency clause (there is, after all, no emergency), delaying its effect until after voters have had their say.

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