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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Oregonians find little they'd like to emulate in Washington's liquor-privatization initiative

There won't be a liquor-privatization initiative on the ballot in Oregon this fall and there seems to be a growing sense that Oregonians have decided Washington voters signed off on a bad deal when they passed Initiative 1183 in the fall of 2011, taking their state out of the liquor business.

Officially, the Oregon-ballot effort died last week because major grocery chains that wanted the opportunity to sell liquor said they were giving up on any hope of collecting the necessary signatures to out the initiative before voters this fall. Those proponents of the Oregon initiative said they will continue seeking privatization of liquor sales through the Legislature or by putting a measure on the 2016 ballot.

But as Oregonians look north across the Columbia River, they apparently perceive that what Washington voters bought themselves was dramatically higher liquor taxes, a dramatic rise in alcohol-related emergency-room visits and small businesses being squeezed out of business.

When Washington voters approved the privatization of liquor sales, they did so with the promise of lower prices. Instead, they got sticker shock at the checkout counter while the state got a $200 million windfall.

Meanwhile, many of Washington's independent spirits retailers and craft distilleries, viewed as important economic engines in many local communities, were being squeezed out of the market.

And perhaps significantly, Costco, which put enough money behind the effort to pass the Washington initiative that some media stories referred to the ballot measure as "the Costco initiative," decided not to participate in the funding for an Oregon initiative campaign.

One aspect of the fallout in Oregon from passage of the Washington initiative has apparently been some change in the approach of the Oregon liquor control agency, which some have described as "loosening a bit" in its relations with private liquor sellers. Some of those retailers contacted in one survey said the agency was "doing a good job."

Plus, the agency has made friends, in part, by leaving the distinct impression that it views part of its mission as an economic development role with small businesses involved in producing or selling liquor, in marked contrast to the fact the new world liquor order in Washington has made clear that basically there are two distributors that control the flow of liquor nationally.

That prompted one Oregon observer to remark "who is likely to do a better job for consumers, the state or two big national companies?"

Meanwhile, a recent study noted just what Washington residents bought themselves by passing the initiative.

The most striking part of the study focused on the increase in alcohol-related emergency room visits in King County, which was chosen because it had the most available data. In the 16 months following liquor privatization, more than 5,500 alcohol-related visits were made to emergency rooms, 50 percent more than they expected, and an increase most significant among teens and young adults.

Plus there are now four times as many liquor outlets in Washington state as there were before the initiative's passage.

I am not really an objective observer in this discussion since I voted against the initiative, solely because I vote "no" on any complex initiative, as this one was. I have voted for only one initiative, a measure years ago that rolled back a sales-tax increase that the legislature had approved. It was a simple question: should the sales tax be rolled back.

My argument about initiatives has always been: measures that become law should emerge from the give and take of the legislative process, whereas most initiatives are basically written at a kitchen table by a half dozen people who have a cause, and a contrary voice is never permitted at the table. So a ballot measure emerges that represents only one side of an issue, And frequently hidden within its provisions is the excess that comes from single-sided discussion.

Welcome to a review of what happened with Initiative 1183.

And with respect to the view of Oregonians about what they see happening north of the Columbia River, there seems to be a growing sense that Washington residents screwed up in passing the initiative. And with that comes a satisfied sense that those Washington voters have no one to blame but themselves.

As I've noted in previous columns, the idea of writing the power of citizens to initiate legislation was considered for possible inclusions in the U.S. Constitution.

But Thomas Jefferson turned back the effort with the simple admonition that if the people had the power to legislate, governmental chaos would result.

Those who provided for the initiative process, primarily western states, weren't listening.

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