After voters narrowly defeated Initiative 1100 to privatize liquor sales in the state, the governor apparently has interpreted that vote as a call to expand on the monopoly, complete with a bit of retail sizzle.
The Liquor Control Board hired a pollster for $31,000 to measure how people feel about state liquor stores. The pollster made a few hundred phone calls between Christmas and New Years and discovered some less than surprising things.
They found that people thought the stores were clean, staff was courteous and the parking lots safe. Much the same could be said about most private businesses in our community.
They said that people found the stores were not very attractive and the non-competitive pricing made shopping a poor experience. I believe the same thing could have been said about stores of all types in the countries of the old Eastern Bloc. They might have been clean and efficient, but they were monopolies with little variety and set prices run by the state.
It’s chilling to consider that in both instances we are dealing with “state” stores.
The Liquor Control Board has a few suggestions for making the local liquor store a cheerier place to shop and make a few more dollars at the same time. The stores would upgrade and compete with large discounters and corner mom-and-pop stores by selling ice, chips, bottle openers, soda pop and any number of other items.
They found that current customers are supportive of on-line ordering, sale of non-alcoholic products, gift cards, extended hours, sample tastings and opening liquor outlets inside other commercial establishments.
They would also set up competitive disadvantages in a town by installing a mini-liquor store actually located inside one supermarket but not at another. Why not just let the stores sell liquor rather than the state renting space and paying state employees to operate a store within a store?
The Liquor control Board is suggesting opening 15 more outlets and livening up the whole system with enhancements that seem better suited to the privately owned and operated businesses in our communities.
Gift cards? If the state is going to issue gift cards for hard liquor, how about for ferry tolls, state park campgrounds or traffic tickets? Government should not be about gimmicks and gift cards are just that.
The projected net revenue from these “commercial enhancements” to a state run monopoly is an estimated additional $2.25 million a year.
I have proposed that when it comes to liquor sales, the state do what it does best; license, regulate, enforce and collect taxes. We need to leave the retailing of products to those that do that best, the private businesses that operate on the open market in our communities.
The bill I am sponsoring would do just that. My proposal would close the state stores and sell off the warehouse and distribution operations. Liquor sales would be regulated by the state, working with communities to make sure that commercial outlets are appropriately located and monitored to be sure that our kids are not getting access to it and that it isn’t sold in inappropriate locations.
The real bottom line is that government, in good times and bad, should be about essential core services. Taxpayers want to see their hard earned dollars spent to educate their children, maintain roads and assure other essential services. Retailing liquor in a monopoly and dressing up the stores just doesn’t meet the criteria of “essential services”.
Senator Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch)
Senator Sheldon has served in the Washington State Legislature for 20 years