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Published: Friday, August 27, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Foes of liquor sales initiatives get help from beer, wine distributors

Beer and wine distribution groups have given $2 million to fight two initiatives that would open up sales of hard liquor to retail outlets instead of state liquor stores.

OLYMPIA -- Distributors of suds and syrah are trying to put a cork in efforts to make hard liquor easier to buy in this state.
The Washington Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association and the National Beer Wholesalers Association each contributed $1 million last week to the campaign against ballot measures aimed at ending the state's control on sale of distilled spirits.
They poured those dollars in the coffers of Protect Our Communities, the coalition of social service groups and labor unions formed to defeat the initiatives.
"We think they're terrible public policy," said John Guadnola, executive direction of the state trade association whose members include Crown Distributing Co. Inc. in Arlington. "Whether or not you believe in privatization, this is a horrendous way to do it."
He said initiatives 1100 and 1105 would deplete state coffers of much needed revenues while increasing the risk to the public's safety by making hard liquor available in thousands of supermarkets, convenience stores and mini-markets.
Sponsors of the initiatives fired back, saying the beer and wine distributors are driven by a concern for their bottom line, not the public's safety and state's fiscal well-being.
"It's ridiculous. I don't think they care about protecting our communities. They're spending $2 million to deceive our communities, said Charla Neuman, spokeswoman for Washington Citizens for Liquor Reform, which is pushing I-1105. "They do not want to risk losing any share of the market."
Guadnola said his members are "happy" to compete with sellers of distilled spirits. They're concerned that the initiatives will erase too many regulations on hard liquor, which has been treated differently than beer and wine for years because it is a more dangerous product, he said.
"I think it's silly if they say they don't see the difference between beer and wine and hard liquor," he said.
The competing measures on the November ballot would essentially wipe out the state's post-Prohibition restrictions on liquor.
Washington is one of 18 so-called "control" states that exercise broad powers over wholesale liquor distribution and one of 13 involved in retail sales of alcohol through state-run liquor stores and outlets operated by private contractors.
Customers can only buy hard liquor by the bottle in the 315 state and contract stores, while beer and wine are sold in thousands of grocery and convenience stores.
Initiative 1100, which qualified on the strength of nearly $1.2 million from Costco, would abolish the state liquor distribution and sales system. Retailers with licenses to sell beer and wine would be eligible to add a liquor license, and they would gain the ability to buy directly from manufacturers.
I-1105 would also privatize the liquor retail system but keep in place state laws that protect liquor distributors -- which are the main financial supporters of I-1105.
Supporters of privatization contend that getting the state out of the liquor business will give consumers lower prices and greater convenience while cutting government costs and boosting the bottom line of dozens of private businesses.
Opponents argue that the state and local governments will lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in liquor tax revenue. And they also argue that making hard liquor available in hundreds more places around the state will lead to greater numbers of minors illegally buying booze and accidents involving drunken drivers of all ages.
Last week's infusion of money from the beer and wine industry adds a new twist to the debate.
Ashley Bach, spokesman for the Yes to 1100 campaign, said voters may wonder why the opposition coalition took the money if it is concerned about the negative effects on society from the sale of alcohol.
"They are trying to make themselves out as this humble coalition. But this is a group getting $2 million from very rich companies whose whole job is to sell and distribute alcohol," he said.
Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman for Protecting Our Communities, didn't doubt the motives of the big donors. He said the distributors are concerned the initiatives are "too risky and go too far."
"They have a big investment in making sure our system allows responsible adults to consume alcohol appropriately while making sure we protect public safety and minimize alcohol-related problems," he said. "With these initiatives, they see huge problems."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » LawsRetailWholesaleLocalCampaign FinancePolitical AdvertisingState electionsAddiction

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