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Political Smell Test: Will Initiative 1183 make us less safe?

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Oct. 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
October 25, 2011 12:43 pm

WHAT THE CAMPAIGNS SAY: You’ve seen the ads. Each side seems to have its own stable of firefighters, police and sheriffs.

A Yes firefighter says “1183 dedicates millions in new revenue for police, fire and emergency services statewide” and a police officer says it “strengthens enforcement.”

But a No firefighter says “1183 doesn’t add a single penny or a single new officer for increased enforcement, even though we’ll have four times as many liquor stores, dramatically increasing teen access to hard liquor.”

One of those must be wrong, right?

Then there’s the dispute between the firefighter who says “1183 expands hard liquor sales to almost 1,000 minimarts” and the former sheriff (Dale Brandland of Whatcom County, also a former state senator) who says it “prevents liquor sales at gas stations, minimarts and convenience stores.”

Another sheriff, Cowlitz County’s Mark Nelson, counters: “Problem drinking could increase as much as 48 percent.”

THE FACTS

‘MINIMARTS': First, let’s get the minimarts out of the way. As others have reported, it’s hardly as clear cut as it’s being portrayed.

The initiative has a 10,000-square-foot requirement for stores wanting to sell liquor. There is an exception: The state Liquor Control Board can approve smaller stores in areas with no big ones. The size of those areas aren’t defined.

So the opposition campaign invented a definition, estimating stores will be allowed every one mile in cities or five miles in the country: 929 total stores. But that number is essentially made up. We don’t know how many stores there will be.

To be sure, there will be some. So the ‘Yes’ campaign isn’t strictly correct either when it says it “prevents” sales.

The ‘No’ ads say, correctly, that the number of stores selling liquor will increase. The governor’s budget office estimates 1,428 stores will sell liquor, up from 328 stores now.

‘ENFORCEMENT’: The expansion of sales raises questions about whether enforcement of liquor laws will go up to match. The liquor board now has about 50 officers out making sure businesses don’t sell to teens or violate other alcohol laws.

The budget office predicts I-1183 will bring in at least $400 million for state and local governments over six years, mostly though a pair of new fees. The biggest share of the revenue goes to the state general fund, which is used for all kinds of spending.

The Legislature could send some of the new money to the liquor board for more officers. And local governments might use some for, say, more drunken-driving patrols. But at a time when strapped governments are cutting payrolls and throwing people off the rolls of social programs, none of that is a sure thing.

So the ‘Yes’ campaign’s claim that it “strengthens enforcement” goes too far.

(The claim seems to be partly based on I-1183 doubling penalties for violations. Indeed, people who break the law will pay a higher price — if they’re caught, but that requires enforcement.)

More accurate is supporters’ claim that “police, fire and emergency services” will get money. The initiative requires local governments to spend at least $10 million of the new revenue on public safety.

‘PROBLEM DRINKING': With more places to buy liquor and with the private sector getting involved, will Washingtonians drink more? Will kids find it easier to get booze?

State stores do better than private stores in turning away underage buyers. The liquor board says its underage stings in 2010 found private sellers following the law 80.5 percent of the time, while state stores’ compliance rate was 94.3 percent.

But included in the private rate are bars and restaurants that already can sell hard liquor and the “minimarts” that mostly won’t add liquor. The ‘Yes’ campaign says stores over 10,000 square feet do much better.

So how does Washington compare to states with private systems? There are plenty to look at: just 18 have a state-run system, and just 11 of those control retail sales, according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.

According to federal surveys, states that sell alcohol directly are are all over the map for underage drinking. Some of them (New Hampshire, Vermont) have high rates of underage drinking and some (Idaho, Utah, North Carolina) are among the lowest.

Underage Washingtonians are slightly more likely than those across the country to say they have had a drink recently. It’s just that somebody else probably bought it for them. The same surveys show young Washington drinkers are among the least likely to say they bought the last booze they drank.

States that sell liquor directly, like Washington, tend to have fewer places to buy it.

They also mostly have less drinking across all ages, according to federal data. But Washington ranks about in the middle of the 50 states when it comes to liquor consumption.

It even has slightly more than California, with its private liquor system and greater concentration of stores. California also reports less underage drinking than Washington.

Opponents point to studies that tie the number of alcohol-selling outlets in an area to bad effects like traffic crashes and assaults. And in their ads, they predict a 48 percent increase in “problem drinking.”

That comes from a federal task force that compiled studies of what happened after government privatized or took over alcohol sales in various states, Canadian provinces and European countries. The task force recommended against privatization after noting that consumption of privatized beverages saw a median increase of 48 percent across all studies.

That’s not a direct measure of “problem drinking,” but the task force says it tends to line up with overall drinking. Still, it could be misleading. Most of the states and provinces privatized only wine. The laws in the other countries, Finland and Sweden, involved beer.

Hard liquor was mostly not studied. The ones that did study hard liquor sales — a 1987 privatization in Iowa — split over whether it increased drinking.

A less rigorous analysis — a reporter’s comparison of those federal liquor consumption records — shows that Iowa continued a recent trend of falling liquor consumption for a decade after privatization before drinking started to climb again. The same thing happened in West Virginia, another state that privatized spirits sales.

BOTTOM LINE: There is no evidence that drinking skyrockets after privatization of hard liquor. Still, states with private sales tend to report more drinking (though that’s not nearly so clear on the West Coast.) The tie to underage drinking is less clear, and opponents’ predictions of such an increase are undermined by the number of stores it’s based on, which they made up. Whatever the effects, government might counter them with its promised revenue — but that money isn’t specifically set aside for liquor-law enforcement, as supporters imply.

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