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Privatizing liquor sales in Washington has not produced added safety problems

Privatizing liquor sales in Washington has not produced added safety problems

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
November 1, 2013
[post_thumbnail]Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, is open to discussing the privatization of liquor sales during the 2014 legislative session.

Despite some fears that privatizing liquor sales in Washington state would lead to public safety issues, it has not proven to be the case, according to a Seattle nonprofit organization.

In fact, since voters approved the change on a ballot initiative in 2011 and private businesses began selling liquor in that state back in June of 2012, arrests for drunken driving and under-age alcohol possession have continued their downward trend. .

“We're just going by the numbers,” said Paul Guppy from the nonprofit Washington Policy Center in Seattle, the organization that extrapolated the latest public safety data. “An interpretation of the numbers is a different thing.”

According to a report from NorthWest Cable News, the Washington State Police attribute the decline in such arrests to the fact that the number of state troopers has been in decline during the time the new private liquor markets have opened up.

For his part, Guppy notes that he doesn’t believe the private sale of liquor necessarily caused the decline in alcohol-related public safety concerns. “From a research point of view we wanted to test this one proposition, and that is, ‘Would these statistics get worse if the private sale of liquor were allowed in Washington?’” Guppy told IdahoReporter.com. “The answer is that, no, it did not happen.”

Guppy said that in addition to public safety advocates, the other group that resisted the privatization move the most was the government liquor agency employees themselves. And on this point, Joe Gilliam of the Northwest Grocery concurs.

“The liquor agency employees themselves don’t want to see this happen,” Gilliam told IdahoReporter.com. Noting that in recent years he and his association held meetings with the staff’s of Gov. Butch Otter and Secretary of State Ben Yusursa to discuss a possible privatization ballot initiative in Idaho, Gilliam said that “Gov. Otter doesn’t want this, just as the state liquor agency doesn’t.”

But Gilliam added that in states where liquor privatization has occurred, retailers and consumers have both benefited. “For the retailer, it opens up a new category of product. For the consumer it’s an added convenience, it’s something they want. It makes for a more pleasant experience for both the consumer and the seller.”

While the prospect of privatizing liquor sales in Idaho has been considered for at least the past three years, the state government’s liquor division has been the source of heightened scrutiny during the past 18 months.

In May of 2012, for example, the agency was the subject of nationwide publicity when it banned the sale of the Five Wives brand of vodka because, according to agency Director Jeff Anderson and his staff, the concept of the “five wives” is a reference to polygamy, an idea that Anderson believed was offensive to members of the Mormon Church despite the church abandoning the practice more than a century ago. The agency reversed its decision weeks later.

Then in November of 2012 the agency requested authorization to spend $15,000 of liquor division dedicated fund money on a website to offer “drink recipes” and “party planning tips” to consumers, along with an extra $197,000 to expand five existing liquor stores. The liquor division’s website currently links to a drink recipes’ website, although it does not appear to be a state-run website. The link can be viewed HERE.

For some, the expansion of the state-run liquor stores and the advocacy of drink recipes run counter to the stated purpose of the liquor agency itself. Yet for Anderson and other proponents of maintaining government control over liquor sales, the agency fulfills a state constitutional requirement that the government maintain a sense of “temperance” and “morality” among state residents.

Indeed, the constitutional references are pointed. Specifically, Article 3 Section 26 of the Idaho State Constitution states that “the legislature of the state of Idaho shall have full power and authority to permit, control and regulate or prohibit the manufacture, sale, keeping for sale, and transportation for sale, of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes …”

In addition, the mission statement of the liquor division makes it clear: “The mission of the Idaho State Liquor Division is to provide control over the importation, distribution, sale, and consumption of distilled spirits; to curtail intemperate use of beverage alcohol; and to responsibly optimize the net revenues to the citizens of Idaho.”

But does any of this mean that the state government is required to own and operate liquor stores?

“I don’t believe so,” Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, told IdahoReporter.com. “I believe more accurately that it’s a policy choice that previous Legislatures have made, and I’m open to considering a change.” Burgoyne added that the state government is in a conflict with its control of liquor retailing, noting that “we started out in the 1930s wanting to ‘control’ alcohol use, but now the state has become dependent on liquor’s financial benefits.”

Similar to Burgoyne, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, sees a conflict as well, noting that “if selling liquor were a private business, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

So will the effort to privatize Idaho liquor sales be undertaken in Idaho again?

“We are definitely continuing to talk to the Legislature about it,” Gilliam said. “We’re working on a privatization ballot initiative in Oregon right now, and when we’ve completed that, we’ll have more wisdom to share in Idaho.”

Listen to a full discussion with Paul Guppy HERE

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