There are a lot of arguments one could make for scrapping Washington's state liquor monopoly. For consumers, it's mostly about convenience and selection. For grocers and other retailers, it's the oodles of extra profit to be made. Then there's the simple fact that 80 years after the end of Prohibition, it just seems weird for the state to be operating a chain of liquor stores.
But a fiscal argument? Not so much.
Love 'em or hate 'em, Washington's state-run stores rake in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, money desperately needed in the face of budget cuts and revenue shortfalls as far as the eye can see. Yet a fiscal argument is exactly what several state lawmakers are making in favor of a liquor privatization bill introduced last week.
Sponsored by state senator Rodney Tom (D-48), SB 5933 is essentially a retread of last November's failed Costco-financed I-1100 (the implied threat is that if the legislature rejects this year's bill, Costco will run another initiative, sources tell The Stranger). But this version contains big differences from last year's measure: It doesn't touch beer distribution and it denies licenses to stores under 9,000 square feet. The first change removes "big beer" from the fight, and with it the millions of dollars the industry pumped into last year's "No" campaign. The second change appeases those opposed to selling liquor in neighborhood mini-marts.
But while this senate bill's title refers to "enhancing state revenues," it gives up a profitable state liquor monopoly ($300 million in taxes and operating income in 2010) in exchange for just five years of license fees plus the promise of increased tax revenue from increased consumption. Compare that to a house proposal that would open up a 20-year lease on the state's wholesale business to competitive bidding, thus maximizing the return to taxpayers.
When voters rejected several tax measures last November, lawmakers in Olympia took notice. "I know they don't want taxes," Governor Chris Gregoire told KOMO News. "I get that."
But, um, voters also rejected two liquor privatization initiatives. So if lawmakers are ready to ignore the "will of the people" in the name of revenue enhancement, they might want to consider an option that actually enhances revenue.