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Grocers renew push for liquor sales

Initiative aimed for 2016 ballot would end 82-year-old state monopoly.

Oregon grocers and others would be able to sell liquor under an initiative that backers hope to qualify for a statewide vote in November 2016.

A similar proposal stalled in 2014, mostly because of legal wrangling over wording, and backers abandoned their effort to get a measure onto the ballot.

The initiative would abolish the state monopoly on liquor sales that has existed since the national ban known as Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Oregon is one of 17 so-called “control” states.

“We believe Oregonians are ready to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales and allow Oregon consumers to buy liquor at qualified grocery and retail stores, just like consumers do in most other states,” says Lynn Gust, president of Portland-based retailer Fred Meyer and a cosponsor of the initiative.

The coalition Oregonians for Competition will need to submit 88,184 voter signatures by July to qualify the measure for the ballot.

It will need 1,000 signatures, which are credited toward the total, to obtain an official summary known as a ballot title. That step is required before advocates can circulate petitions for the initiative.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission would continue to exist after the effective date of July 2017, if voters approve the measure, but it would no longer sell liquor through stores run by agents who are paid commissions.

It would continue to license sellers of beer and wine, which also would be able to sell liquor. However, liquor sales could not take place at gasoline stations under 20,000 square feet.

Fines for sales to minors and intoxicated people would double.

Any savings from the shutdown of the state sales and distribution would go to law enforcement.

Liquor sales accounted for almost all of the $1.1 billion received by OLCC in the 2013-15 budget cycle that ended June 30. Proceeds are split between the state general fund and cities, counties, and treatment programs for mental health and alcohol and drug abuse.

Unlike previous attempts, the currently proposed initiative would leave it to the Legislature to decide how to tax liquor. OLCC currently marks up prices at more than 100 percent, plus a surcharge of 50 cents per bottle.

Washington state voters approved a privatization measure in 2011, but some prices rose in its aftermath.

“Selling liquor is not a core function of government,” said initiative cosponsor Rudy Dory, cofounder of Newport Avenue Market in Bend.

“Our coalition continues to find strong support across Oregon for getting the state out of the business of promoting and selling liquor. We believe the initiative will allow the state to focus more on enforcing liquor laws, especially those aimed at preventing the sale of alcohol to minors.”