OLYMPIA -- A year after failing to get voter support to privatize state liquor sales, Costco Wholesale Corp. and its allies are returning to the ballot for a second opinion.
This year's plan attempts to assuage the concerns that voters raised in 2010, providing a boost in revenues for state and local governments while largely prohibiting small convenience stores from participating. It doubles penalties for retailers who sell liquor to minors, and supporters believe that consumers will start seeing lower liquor prices.
"It's a win-win-win," said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocers Association. "The state of Washington gets revenue for essential services. The private sector picks up a new product line that helps serve the customer. And the customer gets more convenience and a better shopping experience."
But opponents point to a potential loophole in the limits, warning that vague wording could mean that minimarts around that state will qualify for liquor licenses. The measure, Initiative 1183, says the liquor control board shall not deny a retail license to proper businesses if "there is no retail spirits license holder in the trade area."
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It does not specifically define what a trade area is, leaving that to the liquor board or the courts to ultimately decide. Opponents have created their own definition -- one mile in urban areas and five miles in rural areas -- to estimate that it could allow some 1,000 retail outlets to get exemptions.
"This loophole is big enough to drive a liquor truck through, and that's what they're going to do," said Alex Fryer, a spokesman for the opposition group Protect Our Communities.
Gilliam said he expects the exemptions will be much more narrow, arguing that trade areas for some stores reach 40 miles.
Washington is one of about 18 states that have broad control over the distribution of liquor. A smaller number of states, including Washington, also maintain control over liquor sales, such as through state-run liquor stores or contractors. Because of that, Costco and other major retailers cannot sell liquor on their own.
Opponents of the bill, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, have largely cited the public safety concerns as a reason to vote no. They say private stores are less likely to catch and prevent minors from buying liquor and that the expansion of liquor outlets will simply lead to more consumption -- and the societal costs that accompany alcohol abuse.