Costco-backed I-1183 aims to remove state from liquor business
September 20, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Months after a measure to privatize the state’s Prohibition-era liquor system failed, Issaquah-based Costco ordered another round, and spearheaded a similar measure for the November ballot.
Initiative 1183 aims to remove the state from the business of distributing and selling hard liquor. The measure is less comprehensive than Initiative 1100, a Costco-backed privatization measure rejected last November.
If passed, I-1183 calls for state-run liquor stores to close by June 2012. The measure also aims to require the state to license private enterprises to sell and distribute hard liquor, set license fees based on sales and regulate licensees.
Unlike the unsuccessful initiative from last year, I-1183 limits hard liquor sales to stores of at least 10,000 square feet. (The average Costco encompasses about 140,000 square feet.) I-1100 aimed to allow smaller retailers, such as gas stations and convenience stores, to sell hard liquor.
Still, opponents said safety concerns remain about efforts to privatize the system and sell booze at more locations.
“One thing that became clear is that voters of the state of Washington really didn’t want to have a huge increase in the amount of outlets selling liquor — and that’s exactly what this would do,” said Alex Fryer, a spokesman for Protect Our Communities, the campaign opposed to I-1183.
Costco — alongside other large retailers, including Safeway and Trader Joe’s — serves as a major backer for the initiative. Protect Our Communities receives important support from the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.
The forces for and against I-1183 raised about $9 million combined so far, and more money is guaranteed to pour in before Election Day, Nov. 8.
Kathryn Stenger, Yes on 1183 spokeswoman, said support from familiar retailers bolsters support for the measure among the electorate.
“On the one hand, people love the idea because they already have a good relationship with Costco and being able to go in there and find their favorite brands, but it’s also given them some peace of mind,” she said. “They know that Costco is selling beer and wine now, they know that Costco sells liquor in other states and has done so safely.”
State ballot initiatives
Though initiatives 1125 (highway tolling) and 1183 (liquor privatization) receive the most attention, Washington voters must decide other important issues on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Measure differs from past initiatives
The state estimates liquor privatization resulting from I-1183 could generate $216 million to $253 million for state coffers in the next six years. The state could also pocket about $28 million from the liquor distribution center sale.
The measure also includes fees to generate revenue for local governments. Many local government officials across Washington raised concerns last year about possible financial losses related to liquor privatization. Issaquah City Council members considered a property tax increase last year before voters defeated I-1100 as a possible route to compensate for lost revenue.
Issaquah received $363,674 from state liquor revenues in the most recent fiscal year.
The state estimates local governments could receive $186 million to $227 million in the next six years if I-1183 passes.
I-1183 is the latest effort in a long series of proposals to change Prohibition-era liquor laws. The state maintains a government-only monopoly on retail and wholesale liquor sales. Washington and 17 other states control liquor sales and distribution.
“What we’ve heard anecdotally from people across the state is, it’s not that they’re uncomfortable with taking the state out of that monopoly, it’s that they wanted a little more peace of mind about where liquor would be sold,” Stenger said.
I-1183 opponents said the defeat of dueling liquor-privatization measures last November offered a clear message.
“The message that we received was clear from voters that they just didn’t want it,” Fryer said. “Whatever problems or complaints people may have with state liquor stores, they were outweighed by concerns.”
Stenger said the presence of initiatives 1100 and 1105 left voters uncertain about possible outcomes.
“As a voter, having two initiatives on there that dealt with it, but in different ways, made for a lot of confusion,” she said.
In the latest round, however, Fryer said voters tired of liquor privatization initiatives could sink I-1183.
“One of the biggest things we’re hearing from voters is, ‘This again?’ It’s the third time in 12 months,” he said. “Of all the things that are going on in people’s lives, with the economy and the housing market the way it is, privatizing liquor just seems off-key.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.