Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is hoping that citizens will fill up their glasses to fill up state coffers. Planning to chip away at a deficit that’s nearing $6 billion, Gregoire is relying on the state’s stringent alcohol policies to brew up some new revenue.
One of 18 states to regulate alcohol sales and one of nine to operate state-owned liquor stores, Washington had gross liquor sales of over $824 million last year, and officials anticipate that that figure will rise by another $32 million this year, according to Liquor Control Board spokesman Brian Smith.
But Gregoire will need more than that natural growth to balance the budget. In a measure intended to raise an additional $21.2 million in the next two years, she is pushing for the opening of ten new liquor stores—five state-run and five contracted by the state—in her new budget proposal.
It seems to be a safe investment since alcohol sales have been steady despite the economic downtown, according to a recent Seattle Times article , but that doesn’t mean Gregoire’s proposal hasn’t inspired a debate among state lawmakers and store owners.
Washington State Senator Tim Sheldon opposes not only the move to open more state stores but also the very existence of any state stores in the first place. In response to the budget proposal, Sheldon plans to file a new bill to end the state monopoly on hard liquor later this week. Though he has attempted and failed before at privatizing liquor stores, Sheldon hopes the Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, the first stop on the way to passing his legislation, will heed his advice in light of the economic crisis. Shutting down the 161 state-controlled stores—not to mention preventing the opening of ten more—will, he insists, stimulate small businesses and encourage a more competitive market.
Sheldon is not alone in his critique of Gregoire’s plan. Though not aiming for complete privatization, the Washington Food Industry, an organization for independent groceries, is also fighting the proposal, which they think will only hurt the small stores that depend on beer and wine revenue to survive. State price controls already hinder free competition, and the introduction of ten new stores can only do more harm, they say.
And with the challenges that both Gregoire and Sheldon face, it might be a while before either can break out the bubbly.