A wiser system for liquor

Selling alcoholic beverages is not a core, nor even an appropriate, state function. The distribution, sale and marketing of consumer goods are market functions best left to the private sector. The state’s role regarding liquor, beer and wine should be limited to licensing and enforcement.

Those are the primary reasons why we endorsed privatizing liquor sales last year, with Initiative 1100, and why we even more strongly endorse this year’s I-1183, which does two key things I-1100 did not:

•It keeps liquor sales out of small convenience stores, with very few exceptions, and

•It boosts badly-needed revenue to state and local governments by more than $400 million over the next six years, according to the state’s own estimates.

Worried opponents of the Costco- and grocer-backed measure have launched a campaign of deception. The “no” campaign is funded mostly by the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, middle men who stand to lose business because I-1183 would allow retailers to buy directly from producers — a provision that would benefit consumers with lower prices.

One misleading claim made in TV ads involves fees I-1183 would place on retailers and distributors — 17 percent and 10 percent of sales, respectively. The ads imply that consumers would pay 27 percent more for liquor than they do now, which they all but certainly wouldn’t.

Why? First, the state’s 51.9 percent markup would go away. Second, retail prices will be dictated by the market, as they should be. The introduction of competition in place of a state monopoly figures to keep downward pressure on prices.

The more egregious claim is that more than 900 of gas stations and convenience stores throughout the state might be allowed to sell liquor under I-1183. The implication is that such stores would be more likely to sell booze to minors, resulting in more traffic deaths.

It’s a claim pulled out of thin air, apparently in desperation. Opponents know it’s an argument that resonated in last year’s defeat of I-1100, so they’re hammering it again, even though it’s shamelessly specious.

The initiative was written to ensure hard-liquor sales were limited to stores of at least 10,000 square feet, which takes gas stations and convenience stores out of the mix. In a nod to rural areas that don’t have a store that large, it allows the state Liquor Control Board to license a smaller retailer if there isn’t a large store within its trade area.

Opponents claim that the term “trade area” is too vague, and could mean that a convenience store just a mile away from a Safeway could apply to sell liquor. That’s nonsense, according to case law and existing statutes. A trade area is essentially a town or community, according to the state Supreme Court. Mini-marts in urban areas will not be selling booze if voters approve I-1183.

What will happen is consumers will have greater choice, the Liquor Control Board can focus solely on licensing and enforcement, and strapped local governments will have a new revenue source — some of which the initiative dedicates to public safety.

All compelling reasons to vote yes on I-1183.

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