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State lawmakers question 'hybrid' liquor bill

SALEM — A bill to maintain Oregon's state liquor monopoly but allow sales in large grocery stores has some legislators worried.

The measure shaped by the state's liquor board is billed as a "hybrid" that would open up the system of state-franchised stores without going as far as measures that grocery chains are proposing, The Oregonian reported.

"We want to see if there's an Oregon way to hit the middle ground on this," said Democratic Sen. Lee Beyer of Springfield, chairman of the Senate business committee.

At a hearing Wednesday, legislators said they were worried about: young people stealing liquor from groceries, workers losing jobs at the current state-licensed stores, small towns losing out if groceries selling liquor must be larger than 10,000 square feet, a price spike like that in Washington state after grocers won a privatization measure, and major brands dominating shelf space, leaving out Oregon's artisan distillers.

Even if the Legislature passes such a bill, a measure backed by the Northwest Grocery Association could be on the November ballot.

The fix from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission does not go far enough, said Pat McCormick, a spokesman for Oregonians for Competition, the group formed by the grocers.

The grocers want to privatize liquor sales in a system that would allow big-store chains to buy liquor directly from manufacturers. Under the commission's proposal, the state would continue shipping all bottles from its central warehouse in Milwaukie.

Legislators from rural areas questioned the size requirement of 10,000 square feet in the bill presented by Rob Patridge, chairman of the liquor board.

"You leave out entire communities," said Republican Rep. Tim Freeman of Roseburg.

Patridge said the bill aims to steer clear of "the California model," which would mean sales at most convenience stores and gas stations.

With large grocers selling, the number of liquor outlets would top 600, he said. The state now has 248 state-licensed stores, which employ about 1,000 people.

Patridge said he hears most about the lack of convenience when it comes to buying liquor. Some don't want to go into liquor stores, and others want to be able to buy during grocery shopping.