Costco's newly filed liquor initiative attempts to appease local progressive operatives who took down last year's initiative by doing this: The liquor retail business will be handed exclusively to the grocery giants with over 10,000 square feet of space, thereby shutting out the small convenience stores that Dems and unions were so worried, ostensibly, would sell liquor willy-nilly to driving teens.
In practice, this means cutting out mom-and-pop convenience store owners from the business, it means precluding the small specialty shop that would feature those liquors distilled locally, it means keeping out the smaller, organic cooperative grocers from holding an even footing against the big chains. Thanks to the work of the Democratic governor, elected Democrats, their flacks and strategists, district Democrats, and the union that represents employees in the state liquor stores, the guy who gets screwed is the small business owner, the local entrepreneur, and the consumer.
Granted, the new initiative does recoup more money in sales taxes and direct more money to public safety. But lawmakers could have done that themselves in Olympia. Lacking their own action, any idiot could predict that a new initiative would come back doing exactly what the Dems—uh, the party of small business and the worker?—asked for: a mechanism to cut the little guy out completely.
The new initiative will benefit large chains with little stake in Washington, and international liquor conglomerates will enjoy prime real estate on the shelves of big-box stores with less competition from obscure brands at the aforementioned smaller specialty stores (which won't be allowed to exist). And expect new national brands. The major grocers like Costco and Safeway will almost certainly bargain price their own house-brand liquors, which will become your new well liquor every time you go to a bar.
But a backward campaign gets backward results.
Last year the union and Democrats were actually shilling for the Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute's $8 million campaign with a ginned up line about protecting public safety. But the campaign was dishonest. Budweiser just wanted to protect its profits and Dems and the union just wanted more of the state's liquor profit pie. This time around, Dems (who refused to pass legislation to their liking in Olympia) will screw the little guy—their base—that they claim to represent.
Costco has thrown two bones to the beer industry. The new initiative prevents competition between beer and liquor on the shelves in smaller stores (because liquor won't be there), and it allows beer giants to retain control of distribution. So the big business—national beer, national grocers, and international liquor distillers—are sated. (There's nothing wrong with helping big businesses, mind you, but the little guy is getting screwed in the process. And, again, that's what the Dems and the union asked for.) As for the little kiddies, underage drinking was a fake argument: The minors getting away with buying alcohol wouldn't be toddlers drinking Jack Daniels. They're passing for 21 or over. And they could still buy beer and wine at the gas stations and convenience stores. It was simply a catchy campaign battle cry.
But this time around, Costco doesn't throw bones to the union employees, who will still lose jobs when the state stores shut down. In defense, maybe progressives will howl that the initiative would hurt small businesses?
Of course, there's a legitimate debate to be had about the correct degree of regulation on alcohol (or tobacco, mortgages, oil, etc.). Personally, I think a government monopoly on liquor is an throwback to prohibition—an arbitrarily selected commodity that can be better regulated without the state's involvement. So despite the initiative's flaws, I think we should still pass it. It may take follow-up legislation to allow smaller stores into the game. But first, the state needs to get out of the way. Hopefully well-meaning progressives won't fuck this up again.