Is the state's new liquor-privatization law legal?
Though passed by voters, Initiative 1183, privatizing liquor sales, still faces a question: Is it constitutional? Guest columnists Jim Cooper and Steve Williamson say they don't believe it is and the matter is now before the state Supreme Court.
Special to The Times
BY now, most people are tired of hearing about changes to Washington's liquor system. That's understandable, considering last fall we all lived through the most expensive campaign in state history to pass Initiative 1183, bankrolled by Costco.
But there's one more question we still need to answer: Is I-1183 legal?
It's not an academic debate for nitpicky attorneys. It's a question that goes to the core of our political system and our state's ballot-initiative process. When it comes to complying with our state constitution, close enough is not good enough.
Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, every state including Washington adopted some form of control over the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol. In this state, we developed public liquor stores to encourage safety, control distribution and efficiently collect taxes.
After years of trying unsuccessfully in the courts and the Legislature to rewrite Washington's alcohol laws, Costco last year poured $20 million to pass I-1183. The reason is simple: Financial estimates peg Costco liquor sales in Washington at $81 million annually. Politics was a good corporate investment for Costco.
It's no secret we opposed I-1183. Our coalition believed that expanding private liquor sales would not create safe and healthy communities. We worried about people losing their jobs and I-1183's impact on small restaurants. And we believed the liquor regulations made sense.
The voters of Washington overwhelmingly approved I-1183, and we respect their decision. But which part did they like? The part about grocery stores selling liquor? Or the section that changes how wine is distributed, disadvantaging small Washington wineries? Or the part that prevents the state Liquor Control Board from restricting wine, beer and liquor advertising? Or was it the $10 million earmarked for public safety?
The Washington Constitution is clear: No initiative can have more than one subject. This is intended to prevent what's called "logrolling," the inclusion of unpopular items along with wildly popular provisions. I-1183 was huge, almost 60 pages long. Did you read it all?
Don't feel bad if you didn't. You weren't really meant to. But each and every word in those 60 pages has meaning. Costco didn't just want to sell liquor in its stores. It wanted to change wine and spirits advertising laws, too. And to sweeten the pot, it threw in money for public safety.
In March, a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge determined that I-1183 contained more than one subject. Under Washington law, that left no other choice but to invalidate I-1183. The judge later reversed himself and the case is now set to be heard before the state Supreme Court.
Of course, it would have been easier to question whether I-1183 was fatally flawed before the initiative got on the ballot, but our system doesn't work that way.
Some may say it's all water under the bridge by now. State stores are scheduled to be closed for good on June 1. While I-1183 may not be perfect, it's simply too difficult to stop it now.
We hope that view doesn't prevail.
If I-1183 becomes the law of the land, hundreds of state store employees will lose their jobs. Prices on spirits and wine will go up. State regulation of beer will be far more stringent than the regulation of wine and spirits. There will be more retailers, and thus more access to alcohol, with consequences for our entire community. Small retailers will be at a competitive disadvantage to the big guys, since Costco drafted the bill and significantly changed wine sales and distribution laws.
Bottom line, we need to be assured that our politics and our constitution can't be bought and sold. No matter how powerful a corporation, no matter how much money is pumped into TV and mailers, no one is above the law. That's the most important lesson of I-1183.Jim Cooper, left, is past president of the Washington Association of Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. Steve Williamson is assistant to the president of United Food and Commercial Workers 21.