October 13, 2011 in City

I-1183 aims to end state monopoly on liquor

But measure clarifies limit on stores
By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – There may be a feeling of been there, done that on this year’s ballot. With Initiative 1183, voters might even be thinking “didn’t we do that twice, just last year?”

There are some similarities between I-1183 and the two unsuccessful initiatives to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales last year. All involve ending the state’s monopoly on liquor sales.

But there are some differences, too, particularly when it comes to where consumers could buy liquor if I-1183 manages to do what initiatives 1100 and 1105 couldn’t do last year: Pass.

The biggest difference, supporters say, is restrictions placed on where those new stores could be. Unlike previous proposals that could have allowed hard liquor sales where beer and wine are sold, 1183 restricts retail outlets in many cases to stores with at least 10,000 square feet of floor space – the size of a medium-size grocery store. Current state-owned liquor stores also could become privately owned, and privately owned stores now operating under state contract could remain open. All would have to pay new license fees.

“It was specifically written to prevent sales by gas stations and mini-marts,” Kathryn Stenger, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 1183 campaign.

The prospect of increased sales to teenagers in late-night trips to convenience stores may have been a fatal blow to last year’s proposals.

Initially, that size restriction sparked criticism that Costco, the primary source of funding for signature-gathering and now the deep pocket for the election campaign, wrote the measure to benefit itself and the large supermarket chains. Now, however, the proposal is being criticized for opening up sales to too many stores.

Critics point to language allowing the state Liquor Control Board to grant a license to a smaller store if a “trade area” is not being served by a liquor store.

The initiative doesn’t define a trade area. That’s a problem because it says the liquor board “shall not deny” a license if the applicant meets certain criteria, said Alex Fryer, a spokesman for the No on 1183 campaign. In urban areas, supermarkets sometimes define their trade area as a one-mile radius.

Fryer contends that means any convenience store that now sells beer and wine could apply for a hard liquor license. To illustrate that point, No campaign TV commercials show a map of Washington with markers for all the current liquor stores, supermarkets and convenience stores they claim could sell liquor. The map is basically covered with markers from one end to another.

The map has about 1,000 more liquor stores than the Office of Financial Management estimates the state would have if I-1183 passes. But OFM said it didn’t know how to account for the “trade area” provision, Fryer said.

Stenger, from the Yes campaign, counters: “It is a deceptive attempt by the big national liquor dealers to mislead Washington voters. It’s utter nonsense.”

Even if trade area isn’t defined in the initiative, it’s an established concept and described in a state Supreme Court ruling, she said. The Liquor Control Board, which will grant licenses on a case-by-case basis, will be able to determine what a trade area is, she said.

That’s a ruling from the 1960s that has nothing to do with liquor, Fryer argued. If the board denies licenses to stores that believe they need to sell liquor to keep up with their competitors, they could face lawsuits, he added.


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