Liquor store privatization on tap in WA

In Washington state’s November election ballot will have a very interesting twist: dueling initiatives to privatize the state-run liquor stores: Washington Privatize State Liquor Stores Initiative 1100 and the Washington Revise State Liquor Laws Initiative 1105.

The first, initiative 1100 would:

direct the liquor control board to close all state liquor stores; terminate contracts with private stores selling liquor; and authorize the state to issue licenses that allow spirits (hard liquor) to be sold, distributed, and imported by private parties. It would repeal uniform pricing and certain other requirements governing business operations for distributors and producers of beer and wine. Stores that held contracts to sell spirits could convert to liquor retailer licenses.

On June 23rd supporters of the initiative delivered boxes to election officials containing almost 400,000 signed petitions far more than the required 241,000 to qualify it for a ballot vote in November. If it passes, state stores would be abolished and retailers already licensed to sell beer and wine could begin selling liquor as well. Best of all, the state pricing regime, which includes bans against volume discounts would be repealed and retailers could buy directly from manufacturers–cutting out the middleman of distributors. Not surprisingly, Costco has been one of the initiative’s biggest supporters.

Issaquah-based Costco Wholesale Corp. has contributed about $735,000 to the campaign, along with roughly $107,000 in other donated assistance – including the use of staff to collect petition signatures in its stores.

Costco has unsuccessfully fought the state’s existing liquor system for years, both in the Legislature and the federal courts. If I-1100 passes, the retailer would be able to apply its considerable buying power and supply system to selling hard liquor, as it does in other states with different liquor laws.

But there is another initiative that might be on the ballot in November, too. Though the  Washington Revise State Liquor Laws, Initiative 1105 doesn’t yet qualify to be on the ballot, supporters are confident that they’ll get the necessary petitions. Like 1100, 1105 would close all of the government run liquor stores and give the state the ability to issue licenses to private sellers. However, this bill would continue to protect distributors (aka “the middle man”) and retain price controls, preventing volume discounts. The biggest financial supporter for this initiative is, unsurprisingly, distributors who need government to protect their industry. Apparently, unless government forces all retailers to buy their goods from distributors, distributors fear that they’ll have nothing to offer the in the open market.

We will just have to wait and see how the good people of Washington State feel about this come November.