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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Liquor sales discussion not over

Ballot fight has officials, legislators talking changes

Rachel La Corte Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Voters rejected two ballot measures this year that would have gotten Washington state out of the liquor business, but supporters of changing the state’s current system of selling booze are already looking to make legislative changes.

While it’s unlikely full privatization will be seriously considered by lawmakers, a few lawmakers plan to introduce bills on the issue again. And officials with the state Liquor Control Board say they are working with Gov. Chris Gregoire to address frustrations over the current system.

Rick Garza, deputy director of the liquor board, said liquor board officials will be meeting with lawmakers, stakeholders and others in the coming weeks to see if there can be some agreement on possible changes.

He said that November’s vote indicated two messages.

“I honestly believe the public said, ‘I want to treat alcohol different than other commodities because it’s a product that people abuse,’ ” he said. “At the same time I think they’re looking for improved convenience.”

Currently, beer and wine are sold in thousands of grocery and convenience stores, but customers can only buy hard liquor by the bottle in the 324 state and contract stores.

The Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee is holding a work session Tuesday morning to discuss what, if any, changes the Legislature should make, as lawmakers prepare to return to the state capital for the 105-day legislative session that begins next month.

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said lawmakers shouldn’t interpret the vote results as a lack of interest in privatizing liquor sales, noting that hundreds of thousands of voters signed petitions to get the measures on the ballot.

Alexander said he was going to reintroduce a bill he sponsored that would ultimately change the state model to that of Oregon’s, where all liquor stores are private stores that contract with the state.

Earlier this year, the Legislature directed the state Liquor Control Board to prepare a plan to convert at least 20 state liquor stores to contract stores between July 1, 2011, and July 1, 2013, and to assess the cost benefit. However, in a recent report to the Legislature, the liquor board said it does not recommend implementing the plan and that other options should be explored.

Liquor Control Board director of business enterprise Pat McLaughlin said the main concern is that they wouldn’t be able to find private businesses willing to take on the costs of running the stores compared to the commission they would receive from the state.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have closed all state liquor stores and the state distribution center, and auctioned off franchise agreements to the highest bidder, opening the door for grocery sales. Sheldon said he’ll also reintroduce his bill in the next session.

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