Getting the state out of liquor sales

Legislators' failure to act may prompt an initiative

Oregon state government, unlike its neighbors to the north and south, still controls liquor sales, and critics are considering turning to the ballot box to change that.

It's high time the state's Prohibition-era laws were updated, and voters shouldn't let recent troubles with Washington state's transition deter them.

Nonetheless, the issues are complex, and it would be far better to have the Legislature revamp the system than to depend on the far-less-thoughtful initiative process. Still, the initiative process is the tool voters have when the Legislature is unwilling to act.

The overarching problem is that the state shouldn't be in the business of selling liquor, but it depends on the income, which pumps millions into the state's general fund as well as the coffers of cities, counties and drug- and alcohol-abuse programs. And the state has a proper interest in the law enforcement activities also fulfilled by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

Joe Gilliam, of the Northwest Grocery Association, has said repeatedly that Legislative inaction on liquor issues could lead to a 2014 ballot initiative. He told The Oregonian newspaper Tuesday that a decision was likely by the end of August.

Grocers want to be able to sell liquor, as they do beer and wine. Oregon now prohibits such sales, remaining one of only 17 states that still have monopoly control of liquor sales. When Washington state made the transition last year, prices rose but sales also increased, apparently because of the convenience of liquor sales in many more locations.

Washington state's messy process may provide cautionary guidance for Oregon, and decision-makers should take full advantage of the chance to learn from their neighbors' mistakes.

They should not, however, see that experience as support for a state monopoly of liquor sales.

Oregon needs to preserve government income from liquor sales, and to enhance the legitimate role of the state in regulating issues such as the sale to minors. But it needs to get out of the business of buying and selling alcohol.

The initiative process is a blunt instrument, and Oregon tax law is a testament to the ways it can lead to unintended and counterproductive consequences. Constructive action by legislators could prevent a similar result for liquor regulation.

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