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Grocers renew push for liquor sale initiative

Oregon grocers and others would be able to sell liquor under an initiative that backers hope to qualify for a statewide vote in November 2016.

If voters get the chance to decide it, look for an expensive campaign similar to what happened in Washington state when voters passed a privatization measure in 2011.

A similar proposal in Oregon stalled in 2014, mostly because of legal wrangling over wording, and backers abandoned their effort to get a measure onto the ballot.

The initiative would abolish the state monopoly on liquor sales that has existed since the national ban known as Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Oregon is one of 17 so-called “control” states.

“We believe Oregonians are ready to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales and allow Oregon consumers to buy liquor at qualified grocery and retail stores, just like consumers do in most other states,” says Lynn Gust, president of Portland-based retailer Fred Meyer and a co-sponsor of the initiative.

But the measure is likely to face opposition from the agents receiving commissions from the state to operate liquor stores. Oregon is unlike Washington, where the store operators were state employees.

“They are putting at risk 250 small businesses and 1,500 employees,” says Marshall Coba, a lobbyist who represents them. “We are strongly opposed to this and see it as a step in the wrong direction. We are fully confident that when voters see what the big corporate grocers are trying to do, they will oppose this measure.”

Beer and wine distributors have not taken a stance.

The coalition known as Oregonians for Competition will need to submit 88,184 voter signatures by July to qualify the measure for the ballot.

It will need 1,000 signatures, which are credited toward the total, to obtain an official summary known as a ballot title. That step is required before advocates can circulate petitions for the initiative.

The battle in Washington resulted in the most expensive ballot-measure campaign in that state’s history. Costco, the warehouse retailer based in a Seattle suburb, spent more than $20 million to promote it.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission would continue to exist after the effective date of July 2017, if voters approve the measure, but it would no longer sell liquor through stores run by agents.

Instead, it would continue to license sellers of beer and wine, which also would be able to sell liquor.

Fines for sales to minors and intoxicated people would double.

Any savings from the shutdown of the state sales and distribution would go to law enforcement.

Liquor sales accounted for almost all of the $1.1 billion received by OLCC in the 2013-15 budget cycle that ended June 30. Proceeds are split between the state’s general fund and cities, counties and treatment programs for mental health and alcohol and drug abuse.

Unlike previous attempts, the currently proposed initiative would leave it to the Legislature to decide how to tax liquor. OLCC currently marks up prices more than 100 percent, plus a surcharge of 50 cents per bottle.

A tax would require approval by 60 percent majorities in both chambers.

It’s unlikely that if voters approved the measure, lawmakers would allow the state to collect less than it is receiving from liquor income now.

Washington state voters found that some prices rose after privatization took effect in June 2012.


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