Washington state should privatize liquor sales

As the 2010 State Legislative Special Session ensues, the fear of higher taxes is weighing heavy on the minds of many Washingtonians.

Business owners, families and prospective employers are watching and waiting to see whether spending will be curbed or taxes will be raised.

As representatives of our state’s economic engine, small business owners and employees, we think there is a better course. Instead of increasing taxes to pay for record state spending levels that have not declined since the last Great Depression, we believe Washington state’s Legislature should allow the privatization of liquor stores.

A government’s priorities can best be measured by where it spends its money. This year, Washington state will spend more than $117 million marketing and selling alcohol.

Washington is one of only eight states in the nation that operate retail liquor stores. The Washington State Liquor Control Board’s mission statement says they exist “to manage the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages and provide for public safety in the prevention of the misuse of alcohol.”

But the board is also charged with increasing revenues, which means increasing alcohol sales. Such activity is in direct conflict with their control, enforcement and education efforts.

Neither the education nor enforcement efforts are going well for the state, as we have seen continued corruption cases over the years.

If this resource is privatized, the Liquor Control Board would be in a position to better control and enforce state liquor laws. Privatization would also remove the hypocritical element from educational efforts.

Getting Washington state out of the liquor sales business would also likely result in more state revenues, and create more jobs for Washingtonians as we have seen in other states that have converted to privatization of the liquor stores. A recent report by Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag found that “state revenue could increase by $130 million to $244 million over the return from the current operating structure, including one-time revenue.” This is based upon the West Virginia model.

We are asking the members of the state Legislature to start efforts today to privatize this resource. There is little reason to conduct a lengthy study of this matter as there are already 42 other states that allow privately owned liquor stores.

Especially given the current political and economic environments, justifying raising taxes will be difficult, if not impossible, especially when the state has the opportunity to profit from the sale of these stores.

We fully understand that privatizing liquor sales is by no means the final solution to solving our imbalance at the state level. In fact, the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term gains. However, we do believe it is a step in the right direction. Washington state’s families have tightened their belts. State government ought to do the same and seek out efficiencies, learn from best practices and end the inherent conflict of interest. That includes the sale and privatization of liquor outlets.

This opinion piece was co-authored by Ken Oplinger, President/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Tom Pierson, CEO of the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce. Contact: Ken@bellingham.com or tomp@federalwaychamer.com