Editorial: Ballot title dispute misses critical issues in liquor privatization

Published May 6, 2014 at 12:01AM

Do voters dislike a “wholesale sales tax” more than a “wholesale tax”?

That’s the latest wrinkle in the battle about liquor privatization in Oregon, which appears likely to appear on ballots in November.

Before proponents can collect signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, the language for the ballot title must be settled. Last week, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office decided the title should say the measure “imposes wholesale tax.”

Advocates for getting the state out of the liquor sales business are pleased that “sales” is not included. Opponents like the fact that “tax” is there. If nobody objects within five days of last week’s decision, the language might be settled. Then the advocates could choose which of its two measures to pursue and start collecting signatures.

The grocers group pushing the change, Oregonians for Competition, wants to change state law to allow big grocery stores to purchase and sell hard liquor, a process now controlled by the state.

To replace lost government revenue, the measure would impose a whopping 71.7 percent tax, plus 75 cents per bottle, according to The Oregonian. Retail price, however, would be determined in the marketplace, and the recent experience in Washington state showed privatization can actually raise prices. Also, craft distillers are worried that without state control, they’ll have trouble getting grocery store shelf space, making it hard for consumers to find their products and damaging the craft industry.

Getting the government out of the liquor sales business is appealing on a philosophical basis. It’s a leftover from Prohibition that is tough to justify. Still, the practical effects of any change must be carefully considered. The issues are far greater than whether “sales” or “tax” appear in the ballot title.