Washington liquor privatization initiative: What's the truth?

Oct 17, 2011
Originally published on October 14, 2011 4:12 pm

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington voters are getting bombarded with a twenty million dollar fight over the privatization of hard liquor sales. Initiative 11-83 on the fall ballot would close state liquor stores.

Costco and other large retailers are funding the "yes" side in an effort to pick up that business. Beer, wine and spirits wholesalers are bankrolling the "no" effort. Both sides make wildly contradictory claims.

You might call the ad war over the liquor privatization initiative the battle of the sheriffs. A TV spot from the "No" campaign features a southwest Washington sheriff named Mark Nelson.

"Alcohol kills more kids than any other drug," Nelson claims in the ad. "That's why we urge you to vote no on Initiative 1183."

Now here's a "Yes" on 1183 ad featuring former sheriff Dale Brandland from the Bellingham area.

"1183 dedicates millions in new revenues for local law enforcement and public safety programs across the state."

Public safety concerns likely led Washington voters last year to reject not one, but two ballot measures to end state control of liquor sales in Washington. This year, Costco is back with what it considers a new and improved version aimed at addressing those concerns.

Again former sheriff Dale Brandland:

"1183 prevents liquor sales at gas stations, mini-marts and convenience stores."

But the "No" campaign says just the opposite:

"1183 has giant loopholes deregulating our liquor laws allowing almost a thousand gas stations and mini-marts to sell hard liquor."

So which is it? Are mini-marts and gas stations barred from selling booze under this initiative or will they be allowed to because of a loophole?

The answer is complicated. It's true the initiative allows only stores that are at least 10,000 square feet to get a liquor license. That's basically Trader Joe's size and up.

But there's also an exception. The initiative says the state liquor board "shall not deny" a liquor license to an "otherwise qualified" smaller store if there's no other outlet selling liquor in what's called the "trade area."

But trade area is not defined in the initiative. So, the "No" on 1183 campaign came up with its own definition: one mile between stores in the city and five miles in a rural area.

Alex Fryer is a spokesman for the "No" campaign. He says those distances are based in part on the fact that Safeway –- a backer of the privatization measure -– has stores that close together.

"In a number of instances they are within a mile of each other and I think that is a clear definition of a trade area," Fryer says. "They're not going to put stores where they cannibalize their own customers."

Using that definition, liquor privatization opponents have calculated that more than 900 smaller outlets could be allowed to sell booze statewide.

The "Yes" campaign calls that a "completely made-up number."

Mike Vaska is an attorney for "Yes" on 1183 campaign. He says the exemption to the 10,000 square foot rule is for remote communities with no place buy booze within, say, 20 miles.

"Will there be a few exceptional stores authorized? Probably, a few," Vaska says. "Will it be hundreds. No. No way."

Washington's Office of Financial Management analyzes the impact of ballot measures. But the agency says without a clear definition of "trade area," it would be "too speculative" to estimate the number of stores that might qualify for a license to sell booze under the trade area exemption.

State analysts have estimated that under the 10,000 square foot rule, the number of stores selling liquor in Washington would go from the current 328 to more than 1400.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

On the Web:

Full text of Initiative 1138:


Yes on I-1183:


No on I-1183: http://protectourcommunities.com/index.php

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