Government liquor monopoly debate extends beyond Washington state

Voters in Washington will decide tomorrow the fate of Initiatives 1100 and 1105 and whether to end the state’s prohibition-era monopoly on liquor sales. The battle over government liquor monopolies will not end here, however. Active debates are also occurring in the control states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Republican candidate for Governor in Pennsylvania has made ending his state’s liquor monopoly one of his priorities. According to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: 

Attempting a historic change in the way Pennsylvania sells liquor and wine, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett proposes to end the state’s monopoly and allow sales at private stores . . .

In a campaign news release, Corbett, the state attorney general from Shaler, said as governor he would ‘present a plan for the privatization of the state liquor store system that helps to address the state’s needs for additional funds, ensures ongoing revenues and minimizes the impact on current workers.’

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell also plans to move forward with a proposal to end government liquor sales. In an Oct. 22 press release McDonnell said:

Core functions of government, like public safety, education, and transportation, must be performed well. There are other functions performed by government, picked up and co-opted over the years, which do not fit that definition. One of those is the selling of liquor. Thirty-two states rightly leave this function to the private sector. Virginia is one of a minority of states that still retains a monopoly on the sale of this legal, commercial product. That is why I have proposed that we eliminate this unnecessary government monopoly and put the proceeds from selling licenses in the free market into the crucial need of transportation . . .

The conversation on innovative government reform that we have begun is one that will help shape our future prosperity. I believe that government must be made smaller, smarter, more efficient, easier to access and less burdensome. So do most legislators. I do not agree with those who argue that government programs are sacrosanct and can only grow larger, not smaller. In these tough fiscal times, we must be more entrepreneurial. ABC privatization is one step towards this goal. I look forward to seeing our broad government reform proposals enacted when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Efforts to eliminate government liquor monopolies may hinge on whether citizens believe state control of sales has measurable societal benefits. Here is a op-ed I co-wrote with Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation on this issue. We conclude:

“The ‘Great Recession’ is forcing states across the country to reset their programs and focus on their core functions. The question for citizens in the 18 liquor monopoly states is whether selling liquor is a core government function or whether it is an outdated holdover from the prohibition era. Regardless of whether you fill your glass with private or government-supplied liquor, the answer is unlikely to alter alcohol’s impact on society.”

We’ll soon know if voters agree.

Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. He serves on the Executive Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force and is the private sector chairman of ALEC’s Fiscal Federalism Working Group. He is a contributing editor of the Heartland Institute’s Budget & Tax News, serves on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. In June 2010, Governor Gregoire appointed Jason as WPC’s representative on her Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Panel. Jason holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Washington State University.

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