With the economy in the drink and state coffers running dry, Gov. Gregoire has proposed adding 10 new state-run liquor stores, while allowing the sale of alcohol related items like cork screws and ice, in an effort to pump up revenues. (Existing law currently prohibits State Stores from selling ice? That’s just plain silly.) At the same time, kinda-sorta Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon will propose shuttering the State Store system entirely, and privatizing the sale of liquor, because… you know… there’s no time better than a $6 billion revenue shortfall to hand off $322 million in revenues to the private sector.
I’ve often heard my fellow Washingtonians complain about their inability to buy a bottle of Makers Mark at 3AM at the local 7-Eleven, but coming from Pennsylvania, with an even stricter state store system—grocery stores can’t sell beer or wine either—I don’t find it much of an inconvenience. After all, it’s not like the stuff goes bad, so you can always stock up… and if you really need a bottle of rotgut at 3AM, perhaps it’s best that it’s not so freely available anyway?
But what really galls me in nearly every debate about the state store system, are the knee-jerk arguments from the invisible hand crowd about unfair state competition:
The proposals, particularly increases in nonliquor sales at state-run stores, have drawn fire from grocers as an anti-competitive encroachment on private business.
[… ] Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry, said the independent grocers belonging to her organization would be hurt by increases in the number of state-run liquor stores. … “We want them out of competition with us,” Gee said. “We want them out of beer and wine, and we don’t want them to even be considering an expansion into what they call bar products.”
Yeah… sure… the state sells a limited selection of beer and wine from drab storefronts staffed by well-paid, union workers with good benefits. How could independent grocers possibly compete with that?
I mean really… if a private business can’t out-compete the state in the sale of ice and corkscrews, perhaps it shouldn’t be in business in the first the place? They’re gonna have to come up with a better argument than that.
The appropriateness of a state monopoly on the sale of liquor, well, that’s an entirely different debate, but given alcohol’s quantifiable impact on public health and safety, there are plenty of strong arguments in favor of the status quo, however inconvenient it might be to late-night boozers or “antiquated” it may appear to Sen. Sheldon. In fact, if we really want to increase revenues and cut government expenses, I’d not only keep the state store system and its liquor monopoly intact, but expand it to include a state monopoly on the legal sale of marijuana.
Our current state store system grew out of the end of prohibition on alcohol. I’d say it’s past time to end the failed prohibition on pot as well… and then tax hell out of it.