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Shawn Vestal: Few reasons to toast privatized liquor sales

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There we were, in lovely Moscow, Idaho, with a couple of hours to kill before an appointment, so we did what any pair of friends visiting the Gem State from Washington might have done: We shopped for liquor.

The liquor, we figured, would be cheaper.

Turns out we were wrong. The selection was better in that state-run store than your average privatized seller in Spokane – and it was much, much better than my neighborhood grocery store – but the prices weren’t. They were … about the same.

Foiled again.

We keep expecting cheaper booze, and our expectations keep leading us astray. Most of us voted to privatize liquor sales here in Washington because of the reflexive assumption that it would bring down prices. This expectation stood in stark relief with the facts as they were then known, and as most news agencies reported them. But if there is anything our current electoral environment teaches us it is that facts are weak in the face of assumptions. The assumption that the private market always produces a better result – or even just a cheaper one – runs deep.

No, the shift from state-run liquor stores to private sales was predicted to be a wash, in terms of prices, by everyone who knew anything. Some bottles and varieties would be a bit cheaper, some more expensive, but on balance, it was not going to result in cheaper booze, we were told.

We didn’t listen. At least I didn’t – somehow, I managed to continue expecting cheap booze. My buddy in Moscow that day had expected the same thing, back when Initiative 1183 passed in 2011. We had commiserated about this, over drinks – about the heartbreakingly not-cheaper booze I-1183 produced, and about how we should have known better.

In the months since then, what’s happened with liquor sales has been, largely, what was predicted: Prices went up, sometimes a lot, and prices seemed to go up even more than they did, given the way taxes were added to list prices. Many more stores sell booze now, but – at least to my eyes – selection in most cases has narrowed and worsened, compared to state stores.

The dream of privatized liquor was cheaper, more convenient booze. The reality has been more like a shuffling of cards from the same deck: For the best deals and best selection, you still have to go to a specialized store. I’m told by aficionados of certain tipples that these stores put the old state stores to shame; for me and my shopping list, there is not such a dramatic difference, though the booze-marts are definitely bigger.

Overall, like much in politics, the new law works best for those who invested the most in it – Costco, which spent a lot of money on I-1183 and where massive jugs of basic stuff can now be had at a volume discount.

The degree of buyer’s remorse on this issue is considerable. A recent survey, previously reported in the S-R, showed that about 1 in 5 people who voted for I-1183 would now change their vote, based on the way the law has played out. The chief concern expressed by survey respondents was the increased availability of booze – the everywhere-ness of liquor these days. As if that, like prices and selection, were not a predictable consequence.

The research was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, conducted by the Alcohol Research Group, and funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It surveyed 1,202 random adults in 2014.

The purpose of the survey was to see if other states might learn anything from Washington’s experience, and the nature of any regrets voters might have. It showed clearly that the regrets were on the yes side – those who voted in favor of I-1183 were much more likely to regret their vote than those who opposed it.

Researchers concluded: “The result of the I-1183 election likely would have been different if voters could know their future opinions of the actual situation resulting from privatization. This finding is particularly important for states considering privatization.”

All in all, though, those with buyer’s remorse were not the majority, and neither were those who were happy with their vote. In this case, the “don’t knows” have it – 44 percent of respondents said they didn’t know if the law had been a success.

That reflects the complexity of the system – with hundreds of different places peddling liquor in different amounts and at different prices – cast hard against the simplicity of our desires. Some of us wanted cheaper booze. Some of us wanted the government out of it. Some of us wanted to keep strict limits on the times and places of sale, and some of us wanted the opposite.

At the end of the day, it might take deeper research to untangle the ways the new system and old system differ – a series of differences that, at the end of the day, might eventually be distilled into a million minor changes that have produced, broadly speaking, few major ones.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep an eye out for cheaper booze.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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