Editorial: Grocers must justify or eliminate size limit in liquor proposal

Oregon grocers say they want to get state government out of the liquor business. Their proposal, though, would still prohibit liquor sales in most stores of less than 10,000 square feet.

We agree it’s time for Oregon to quit the small club of 18 states where the government still controls liquor sales, but why the 10,000-square-foot limit? A spokesman cites public safety concerns about convenience store sales, but the limit surely benefits the larger stores that are bankrolling the petition effort.

The Northwest Grocery Association this week launched its long-expected effort to privatize liquor sales by filing several versions of a ballot initiative. The group is expected to settle on one version before seeking to get it on the ballot in November 2014.

Lauren Johnson, chief operating officer of Bend’s Newport Avenue Market, is one of the two chief petitioners. In a media statement, she said the state “should be focused on enforcement of liquor laws, not sales, marketing and distribution of alcohol.” Lynn Gust from Fred Meyer is the other petitioner.

The plan would end the state monopoly and allow hard liquor sales in larger stores that already sell beer and wine, as well as some smaller boutique shops and current liquor stores. The state would continue to control licensing and enforce state law, and the plan depends on maintaining state revenue from liquor sales. It proposes increasing certain fines to provide support for local public safety programs. Petitioners claim taxpayers would save $28 million a year by closing the state’s warehouse and store system. Retail prices would be set by the marketplace, with no guarantees about whether they would fall, climb or stay the same.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, meanwhile, is working on its own modernization program, which would maintain the state distribution system but allow sales in grocery stores. It expects to ask the Legislature to approve changes in the February 2014 session. The OLCC argues the grocers’ approach would endanger state revenues and the craft distilling industry.

It’s time to get the state out of liquor sales, in our view, but we don’t buy the 10,000-square-foot limit unless the grocers can provide a convincing case for public safety. Allowing competition means all competition, not just protecting the interests of larger, established stores.