Washington state voters pass I-1183

By Will Khadivi

Voters in Washington handily approved Initiative 1183 on Nov. 8, which would close state liquor stores and allow large grocery stores to sell hard alcohol instead.  The big switch to private liquor sales comes June 1 of next year.

I-1183 passed with almost 59 percent of voters voting “yes.” The initiative passed in 34 of Washington’s 39 counties and garnered a large amount of support from both the liberal Puget Sound area and more conservative Eastern Washington.

I-1183 was by far the closest watched and most expensive campaign in Washington state on the 2011 ballot. Ads and commercials for both sides blanketed the airways and littered local streets.

The biggest spender of the campaign was Issaquah-based Costco Wholesale which spent over $22 million to persuade voters to kick the state out of the liquor business.

“We’re advocates for the consumer; we think the consumer expects that Costco is going to stand up for them,” Costco CEO Jim Sinegal said in an interview to King 5 News.

The initiative’s passing will likely have little effect on the price of liquor, since Washington will keep its high liquor taxes.

The campaign against the initiative was largely funded by out-of-state wine and liquor distributors who feared that deregulation of the industry would spread to other states. It also focused on the safety issues of privatizing liquor and especially the risk of stores selling liquor to minors.

A “No on I-1183” ad said, “Police stings prove that gas stations and minimarts sell alcohol to one in four minors.” However, 1183 will only allow stores measuring at least 10,000 square feet to sell liquor. Most mini-marts are well below that size.

The passing of I-1183 is expected to add an additional $80 million in revenue for the state in the next six years. That is welcoming news since the legislature is currently discussing how to close a $2 billion budget shortfall.

The big switch also means that 900 state employees, most of whom work at state-run liquor stores, will lose their jobs in June.

In the coming months, the state will begin to wind down its liquor business, including selling off inventory and the distribution center in Seattle and also auctioning off state-run liquor stores.