After Wash. liquor plan, attention turns elsewhere

November 9, 2011 - 6:20 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Liquor privatization advocates are poised to expand their campaigns in the wake of this week's landslide victory in Washington state, turning their attention to other states that still maintain strong government controls.

Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, said Wednesday he expects industry leaders to begin talks in the coming months with liquor regulators and lawmakers in both Oregon and Idaho. He said both states have different systems than Washington's, meaning that the rules proposed by Initiative 1183 may not be replicated.

"You can't take a cookie cutter and put one on the other," Gilliam said. "You're not going to take 1183, retype it and put it on the Oregon ballot."

But Gilliam said he also expects that the industry organizers may be successful in legislatures, meaning that ballot efforts in those states wouldn't be necessary.

Washington's initiative, which became the costliest in state history thanks to a $22 million investment from Costco, drew stiff opposition from distributors who expressed concern about new rules that will allow retailers to work directly with liquor producers. Paul Romain, a lobbyist for the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors Association, said some members of his group actually want privatization while others do not.

He said support for any plan would depend on how the system is set up.

"We'd have to wait and see what comes out of negotiations or what is proposed," Romain said. "Discussions will be going on, I know that."

Oregon has some similarities to Washington in that it has the exclusive right to sell liquor and controls the distribution. The state has 242 stores that are operated by contracted agents, while half of Washington's are run by the state. Idaho has a similar mix as Washington.

About 18 states have broad control over liquor distribution, although a smaller number — including Washington — retain controls at the point of sale.

Those states have frequently raised the issue of privatization. Steve Miskin, a spokesman for Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, said the Washington initiative is one of several efforts that they have been following. He said the victory sends a clear signal that voters are eager to get government out of the business of selling alcohol.

"The Prohibition-era models need to go," Miskin said. Turzai has been pushing a privatization measure there, and Pennsylvania's governor released a consultant's report last month that touted the benefits of such a shift, saying the state needs to exit the business.

The privatization effort in Washington will force more than 900 people out of jobs. The Liquor Control Board said in a statement Wednesday that it was deeply disappointed in the result of the vote but that it would begin implementing changes.

Liquor sales will be fully privatized by June.

The lengthy battle to privatize liquor in Washington may provide some insights for any replication efforts. Advocates failed to get a measure passed through the Legislature and then failed in a ballot proposal last year.

Costco's measure this year acknowledged some of the flaws in the previous proposal, placing stricter controls on who can sell liquor and increasing government revenues. The company also committed $22 million to help ensure passage.

Unofficial results show it passing with 60 percent of the vote.

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AP Writer Mike Baker can be reached at http://twitter.com/MikeBakerAP