When it comes to state-wide initiatives, sometimes it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Initiative 1183 will privatize the sale of liquor to Washington consumers. Private operations housed in facilities larger than 10,000 interior square feet can be licensed, effectively controlled, and fined double the fines levied today for illegal sales. The State of Washington will get out of the liquor business. Liquor may well be cheaper than today, especially at large volume establishments with internal distribution systems. This sounds like free-enterprise at its best. Still, the devil’s always in the details. So, I read the initiative.
I found three objectionable aspects to the initiative. The first is that the initiative is clearly written to benefit large vendors. While existing establishments can be privatized and stay open - even if they’re less than 10,000 interior square feet - the initiative prohibitively favors the big stores with internal distribution systems. The notion that existing stores can stay open is a red herring. They won’t be able to beat large corporation pricing. Both existing stores and their distributors will cease business in short order, unless they inhabit niche markets. These are not times to be putting additional people out of jobs and businesses (over 320 stores at risk).
A second objectionable aspect of this initiative involves the exemption provided to a potential licensee of less than 10,000 interior square feet. Applicants less than 10,000 square feet in an under-served “trade area” can still receive a license. Nowhere in this initiative is the definition of “trade area” defined. Apparently, “trade area” is whatever the Washington State Liquor Control Board decides. The assertion that no establishments less than 10,000 square feet will be licensed is bogus. A pro campaign ad with a former police chief says that no convenience store liquor will be available if you vote for the initiative. That’s definitively untrue.
A third noxious aspect of the initiative is the change from the current absolute prohibition on liquor advertisement to the ability of the Liquor Control Board to decide “reasonable” advertising rules. This puts local government sign codes into potential conflict with Washington State Liquor Control Board rule-making. I dislike the thought of Washington State Liquor Control Board rules trumping local standards. If the initiative passes as written, then some conflict between the Washington State Liquor Control Board and local government will likely occur.
Privatizing liquor sales sounds like a good thing. A person can buy liquor all over California and California is still there. Nevertheless, this initiative buries existing businesses in favor of large corporations; opens the door to liquor establishments anywhere and everywhere; presents the possibility of increased or contested liquor advertising; and allows the Washington State Liquor Control Board locally intrusive rule-making authority.
The current liquor retail and distribution industry opposes this initiative, as do small grocers generally. It seems to me that the current system is not actually broken, and has worked predictably for many decades. I might vote for the initiative anyway, but some assertions in the media campaigns are misleading, particularly in the large corporate campaign ads.