Two citizen initiatives to privatize liquor failed at the ballot box last year. State lawmakers now should seize this opportunity to privatize liquor in a more efficient manner.

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WASHINGTON lawmakers should privatize state liquor operations. Selling liquor is not a core function of government. The state should get out of the business.

Exactly how to get out is the tricky part. There are those who say that two citizen initiatives to privatize liquor failed at the ballot box last year; the voters have spoken.

That will not be the end of it. If the state does not act, more initiatives will emerge. Lawmakers should seize this opportunity to write a smarter bill themselves. This is work for the Legislature to do because legislation is more flexible than an initiative. Once signatures are gathered for an initiative, the language cannot be changed.

State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the House is likely to produce a budget without identifying potential, speculative revenue that might come from liquor privatization. He then said he would make changes to two ideas floating around Olympia, one focusing on retail sales, another on the distribution system.

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Hunter or someone else should write a liquor-privatization bill that accomplishes several goals:

• It makes no sense to replace a state monopoly with a private monopoly. Any new legislation should make liquor sales more available, but not too available.

• We are sensitive to the safety issue, a legitimate concern about liquor outlets on every corner. So some square-footage minimum or even a hefty license fee makes sense to keep the overall numbers down. But consumers in many other states can buy liquor at regular stores and Washington residents should have that same convenience.

• Washington has deep budget woes so any liquor-privatization measure should secure real dollars for the state, both through savings on expensive employee salaries, benefits and pensions, and by selling or leasing a valuable asset.

It is getting late in the session to create something as complicated as liquor privatization but lawmakers will get over that hurdle because there is money in these proposals. If a decent plan is introduced soon, lawmakers have the time and opportunity to get this right.

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