Selling off liquor stores a sober approach to budget

Washington is among the states considering getting out of the liquor business.

It is not a new idea.

Legislators in the past, including our own Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, have tried to end the state monopoly.

This holdover (hangover?) from the days of Prohibition is one of the means being considered by the Legislature to close the shortfall in the budget this year.

The state monopoly generates significant revenue: About$320 million each year.

But according to a recent report by state Auditor Brian Sonntag, the state could increase revenue by as much as $277 million over five years if it changed its current liquor model.

The spur this year is the$2.8 billion deficit the Legislature faces.

Yet deficits of this size -- or nearly so -- have become almost routine in Washington.

The main battle shaping up in Olympia is over proposals to pave the way for new taxes.

Still, the millions involved in maintaining a state monopoly on liquor sales could help out.

In a year when Washington lawmakers are looking to patch a $2.8 billion deficit, Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who is a chief budget writer for the Senate, thinks protecting the state liquor monopoly is a mistake.

He has introduced a bill that would get the state out of the liquor business.

He admits part of the savings would come from elimination of about 800 union jobs, which means the state could save on long-term pension and health costs.

He says union jobs are at stake either way, according to The Associated Press.

"I would rather cut jobs at the state liquor store than to cut jobs of teachers," he said. "We have a decision to make." He said liquor sales are "a retail operation. Private companies can do it as good or better."

All the liquor sold for home consumption in Washington comes through a vast warehouse in Seattle and is shipped to the 315 state and contract liquor stores.

And as the distribution is centralized, so is what is offered. The state deals only in liquor it expects to turn over in a relatively short time.

That means some more exotic or very expensive brands are unavailable in the state except through special arrangements.

If liquor sales were turned over to the private sector, it seems likely that some stores might carve out a niche for themselves by catering to people with different tastes.

Rachel la Corte, writing for the AP, reports that the 250,000-square-foot distribution warehouse in Seattle might be put up for sale if the state gets out of the liquor business, bringing in a one-time boost of about $33 million.

Old Herald files show that11 years ago, state Sen. (then Rep.) Delvin co-sponsored a bill to move the state's retail and wholesale liquor business into the private sector.

We encouraged him in an editorial on Feb. 8, 1999.

We did the same when former Gov. Mike Lowry suggested closing down the state liquor stores during his administration.

We're told the state would continue and perhaps stiffen its monitoring of liquor sales, so public safety does not seem to be an issue.

Still, we recognize that this would represent a big change for Washingtonians, and the Legislature would be wise to get an abundance of public input.

We are very much convinced that selling liquor is not a "core" responsibility of state government.

Education is.

Doing away with state liquor stores just could send the message that in Washington, we are getting our priorities straight.