Liquor privatization: Voters delivered a clear message

Those who still want to privatize liquor sales in Washington state are spinning like crazy to justify undoing the voters' decisions.

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The state's highest-grossing liquor store, at 7th Avenue and Bell Street in downtown Seattle.

Those who still want to privatize liquor sales in Washington state are spinning like crazy to justify undoing the voters' decisions.

Since the defeat of the two liquor privatization measures, Initiatives 1100 and 1105, a lot of misinformation has spread around as to why the voters rejected them. Privatization proponents have been spinning like tops trying to explain away their defeat at the polls. The time has come to set the record straight about some of the untrue — and self-serving — assertions that have been made about why these initiatives failed.

Perhaps the most absurd claim is the conspiracy theory that the Washington Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association, representing nearly two dozen distributors who handle more than 90 percent of beer and wine sales across Washington State, secretly qualified I-1105 as a Trojan horse designed to undermine support for I-1100, the radical alcohol deregulation measure backed by Costco and other retailers.

The truth is that both Initiative 1105 and Initiative 1100 were being shopped around long before they were filed. WBWWA was asked to support 1105, but after carefully analyzing both measures we came to the conclusion both would have caused far more harm than good. As a result, we joined the Protect Our Communities coalition — which included law enforcement officials, first responders, the prevention community, religious leaders, craft brewers, Washington wineries, labor organizations and others — in opposing both 1100 and 1105.

I-1105 did eventually win the backing of two national liquor distributors, each of which has a local affiliate that is a member of our organization. We agreed not to spend the dues money from those affiliates on our campaign efforts, but we also made it crystal clear to them that we would actively oppose both measures, as we did.

Did the presence of two competing measures on the ballot have a significant impact in undermining both? Not really. Our polling showed that virtually everyone who voted for 1105 also voted for 1100. In other words, voters were not confused into splitting their support between two competing measures. A significant majority of voters rejected both because they agreed with us that a little more convenience in accessing hard liquor was not worth the risk.

In the end, WBWWA invested more than $2 million dollars in the opposition campaign, an amount that was more than matched by distributors and brewers throughout the country. That raises another false claim we have heard, the claim that the pro-privatization campaigns were overwhelmed by beer and wine money. That is simply not true.

Yes, this was an expensive campaign — on both sides. The pro-1100 campaign ended up spending more than $6 million to make their case to the voters, and still failed. When you consider the several million that was also spent on 1105, privatization advocates actually invested roughly the same resources as did the no side.

And the proponents of I-1100 had the huge advantage of being able to use their retail outlets to promote privatization. Costco made an enormous effort to make its members aware of its position on I-1100, including messages in its member magazine, blast e-mail messages to members, and of course prominent in-store displays. In the final weeks of the campaign, Safeway, Fred Meyer and others pushed — over the objections of their employees — pro-1100 literature on their customers in their stores.

We could only dream of having that kind of easy access to millions of voters across the state. The public was given the information it needed to weigh the pros and cons of the issue, and in the end voters made an informed choice to retain the current system.

So why did the voters of Washington state decide to reject liquor privatization, in spite of the anti-Olympia climate that was so apparent with other ballot measures this year?

As is often the case, the simplest explanation is the truest one. The people of Washington looked at the problems associated with privatization — the loss of public revenues, the consequences for public safety, the threat to thousands of private and public sector jobs — and they came to understand that the current three-tier regulatory system works pretty well by allowing for the consumption of alcohol by responsible adults while minimizing the problems that can result from deregulation. In short, they made a wise decision, and we thank them for it.


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