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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Getting state out of liquor business makes sense

The state of Washington should not be in the liquor business.

A “yes” vote on Initiative 1183 will end what, in a sense, has been a 78-year regulatory hangover from Prohibition, that grand experiment in government-imposed teetotaling. Keeping liquor sales in the hands of the state was a way to maintain some control over the flow of alcohol.

Take that control away, I-1183 foes warn, and drunken drivers will fill our highways, bottles will be stocked next to baby food on every store in the state and teens with fake ID will be sailing past checkstands.

Those claims sank Initiatives 1100 and 1105 two years ago. I-1183 addresses some of the defects in those measures and, more cynically, resolves the turf battle between Costco and other special interests fearful of losing revenue. This year, Costco has contributed $10.8 million to the pro-I-1183 campaign. Wine and liquor wholesalers have kicked in at least $6.8 million to fight the initiative.

No television viewer in Washington has missed multiple uniformed emergency responders decrying the menace of I-1183, or cheering the windfall in revenues forecast by the state Office of Financial Management. Over six years, OFM says, I-1183 could generate between $186 million and $227 million for local governments, and $216 million to $253 million for the state.

The potential for that kind of revenue should be downright intoxicating for a state and communities thirsty for money, but Gov. Chris Gregoire, for one, opposes the measure. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has not taken a position. Public employee unions are opposed. If I-1183 delivers cheaper booze thanks to competition among suppliers, there’s no telling where privatization might strike next.

The fear initiative foes are trying to exploit is that of too much alcohol in too many places, including the hands of teenagers.

Alarming? Yes. True? No.

Liquor outlets will have to be a minimum 10,000 square feet unless they are one of the rural stores selling beer and wine that will be grandfathered into the business. The typical convenience store is less than one-third the minimum area. The average state liquor stores are only one-half the minimum size.

Although the number of stores selling liquor will increase substantially as Costco and supermarkets take over, so will training and inventory requirements. Fines for selling to teenagers double. Foes have not pointed to any evidence these major retailers have sold liquor irresponsibly in states such as California where they already do so.

Opponents have also tried to make an issue of wording that permits a store if a “trade area” does not have access to liquor. That’s a threat only if communities or neighbors do not speak out against the issuing of a liquor license. Certainly, most will.

In fact, getting the State Liquor Control Board out of the business of selling booze and making enforcement its sole responsibility is perhaps the best attribute of I-1183. Coupled with the increase in money for local law enforcement, there should be more, not less, resources to stop alcohol abuse.

Vote yes on I-1183.

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