A ballot measure that would make wholesale changes in the way Oregon regulates hard liquor sales has been put on the back burner, at least for now. Supporters of a proposal that would allow grocers to sell liquor announced last week that they do not believe they can round up at the necessary 87,000 petition signatures by the July 3 deadline to get a measure on the ballot in November.
The state Legislature now has a window of opportunity to get out in front on this issue. Although the question at hand is liquor, as with many things in life the real issue is money.
Not surprisingly, the main promoters of this change are grocers, who would benefit if liquor sales are moved out of stand-alone liquor stores and onto the shelves of grocery stores. Furthermore, one of the main opponents of such a move is the Oregon Beer & Wine Distributors Association, which is just fine with the system as it is. After all, if purchasing distilled spirits becomes more convenient it might cut into sales of beer and wine. Or, maybe not. But the beer and wine lobby would just as soon not test the hypothesis.
Then there is the state. And cities. And counties. They all have a dog in this fight.
Liquor stores that are operated by private contractors, yet remain under strict state control, are a significant profit center for all levels of government in this state. During the 2012-13 fiscal year, state liquor stores generated net revenue of $202 million. Of that, $115 million found its way into the state general fund and another $78 million was distributed to cities and counties throughout the state.
Granted, in a state budget that has a $16 billion two-year general fund, the money generated by liquor sales may seem like chump change. But the $230 million that flows into the general fund during a two-year budget cycle would be difficult to replace.
So, for now, we have put off the day of reckoning. However, it seems pretty obvious that Oregonians favor the convenience of buying liquor in grocery stores, just as they already can in both California and Washington.
Accomplishing this change in a way that is revenue-neutral would make a lot of sense. However, such a result is far from a sure thing at the ballot box. This is a complicated issue that would change the way the state has done business for decades. It would be best if the details could be hammered out in the Legislature rather than waging a campaign with slogans that fit on a bumper sticker.