Proposed ballot measure would allow grocers to sell liquor

Joe Bascuti stocks shelves at a liquor store in Portland in July 2012. Operating under a group called Oregonians for Competition, Oregon grocers have filed paperwork for a ballot measure that would allow them to sell hard liquor.

PORTLAND — A group backed by Oregon grocery stores filed paperwork Wednesday for a ballot measure that would allow grocers and other retailers to sell liquor.

The proposal, which could go before voters in the 2016 election, would end the state’s monopoly that dates to the end of Prohibition in the 1930s. Currently, only the state can import and distribute liquor from its warehouse in Milwaukie. Hard alcohol is sold exclusively at state-licensed stores that keep a percentage of the proceeds.

The initiative would allow private liquor distribution and warehousing. Most retailers that currently sell beer and wine could also sell distilled spirits, though gas stations would still be prohibited.

“They already know how to responsibly sell alcoholic beverages,” said Pat McCormack, a spokesman for Oregonians for Competition, the group created to pursue the initiative. “Let’s cut the state out of the business of selling liquor and increase its focus on alcohol law enforcement.”

The initiative also would strengthen penalties for people who sell alcohol to minors.

The grocers proposed a similar initiative for the 2014 election, but they ultimately dropped it when they decided to change the language and ran out of time to collect signatures. Grocers will need just over 88,000 valid signatures to place the initiative on the 2016 ballot.

Critics say privatizing the liquor system would harm Oregon nascent craft distilling industry because it would be harder for small players to compete for shelf space in a grocery store.

Rob Patridge, chair of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, said he doesn’t see people clamoring to upend the liquor system.

“I think Oregonians generally have been satisfied with the way they’re able to obtain liquor,” Patridge said. The OLCC doesn’t take a stand on ballot measures, he said.

With the threat of privatization looming, the OLCC voted earlier this year to create up to 17 new liquor stores in the Portland area. It’s currently seeking applications to run them.

Washington state voters privatized liquor sales in 2011 after an expensive campaign funded largely by Costco Wholesale Corp.

Alcohol sales provide the state’s second-largest source of revenue after income taxes, contributing $250 million to the state general fund during the last two-year budget cycle, plus another nearly $200 million to local governments and drug treatment.

The grocer-backed initiative would leave it to the Legislature to come up with a new tax model if voters opt to privatize.

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