EDITORIAL: Initiative 1183: Yes

October 21, 2011 

We rarely recommend voter initiatives.

More often than not, they are attempts by special interests to circumvent the legislative process by masquerading as grass-roots crusades.

The deliberation required to pass a bill -- public hearings, lobbying efforts by all sides, consideration of amendments, floor debates and the like -- are all bypassed. The usual result is bad law.

Like virtually every initiative, Initiative 1183 is bankrolled by the special interests with the most to gain. Costco has pumped enough money into the campaign to make it the most expensive in state history.

But for all the inherent flaws, initiatives are the only way to force change when the Legislature is unwilling or unable to act.

We believe that's the case with I-1183, which would privatize the sale of hard liquor in Washington. If voters reject this measure, expect the state to stay in the liquor business for a very long time.

A loss at the polls would give the Legislature permission not to act and discourage proponents from spending more money on a losing cause.

We have some concerns. For one, it mandates the transition from state-run liquor stores to private sales be completed by June 1. That tight deadline is bound to create some logistical problems.

We're also worried about the potential impact on the state's fledgling distillery industry. These cottage businesses will find it tough to deal with a slew of regional distributors instead of the state monopoly.

But the arguments against the measure filling the airwaves are mostly hooey.

The "no" campaign's contention that the initiative would create "giant loopholes deregulating our liquor laws, allowing almost 1,000 gas stations and minimarts to sell hard liquor in every community across Washington," is problematic at best.

In general, I-1183 would limit liquor sales to retail establishments of 10,000 square feet or larger, which excludes virtually all gas stations and minimarts, with exceptions for places where no business meets the 10,000-square-foot requirement.

The "no" campaign's claim that the initiative would make liquor more accessible to minors is even flimsier. The measure would create stronger deterrents by doubling the fines and license-suspension penalties for selling liquor to minors.

The weakest argument is the assertion that I-1183 would add a 27 percent tax to liquor purchases. Wholesalers and retailers would pay a 27 percent fee, and consumers would ultimately pick up that cost.

But I-1183 would also eliminate the 39 percent markup the state collects on every liquor sale. The cost of liquor may not drop under the initiative, but nothing in I-1183 would drive prices up, either.

Two years ago, we opposed a similar initiative, largely because of the hit local governments would take when their cut from the state's liquor monopoly was eliminated.

The fees included in I-1183 take care of that problem. Local governments would collect $26 million to $34 million more a year than under the current system, according to the state's Office of Financial Management.

I-1183 isn't perfect, but none of its flaws are insurmountable. More importantly, it may be the voters' last chance to get state government out of the liquor business.

The Herald editorial board recommends voters approve Initiative 1183.

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