OLYMPIA -- Washington would ask potential buyers how much the state could get for its wholesale liquor distribution system in a bill approved today by the Senate.
Overcoming objections of people who said it did too little and merely shifted the state's liquor monopoly to private hands, the Senate voted 31-14 to approve a bill to seek requests for proposals from companies interested in taking over the wholesale system. Retail stores would remain in state control.
Hanging over the debate was the filing Friday of an initiative that would privatize liquor distribution and sales throughout the state by Costco, the state's restaurant association and the region's grocery stores.
Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, argued the bids should not be sought until after the November election if the initiative gathers enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Uncertainty over the outcome of the election would drive down the amounts on the bids, he said.
"If the initiative is certified, this bill is essentially worthless," Tom said.
But supporters said the Legislature can't put issues on hold just because an initiative was filed. "If the initiative process is a reason for people not to act, we shouldn't be here," Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, said the state should look at more than just selling its wholesale operation; it should get out of the retail stores, too. "This is a big issue and it should have been handled in a comprehensive way," he said.
But Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said there are some advantages to considering changes to the different parts of the system individually. "This is the piece that you don't see when you walk in the liquor store. This is just a first step."
The bill now goes to the House.