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Originally published Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 4:26 PM

Con | Initiative 1183's greater access to liquor would harm public safety

Initiative 1183 would take Washington state out of the liquor retail business. Guest columnist Kelly Fox argues against I-1183, saying it would increase access to liquor, especially a threat to minors, and harm public safety.

Special to The Times

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WHEN Costco set out to dismantle the state liquor-control system, they spared no expense. The company hired signature gatherers and poured $23 million into getting your vote for Initiative 1183, a record for political money in Washington. With all that cash, they've tried to convince voters that a fourfold expansion in the number of outlets selling liquor is somehow good for public safety. Don't believe it.

Last year, firefighters and paramedics across the state worked to defeat two similar liquor initiatives. This year, Costco is back with another one, and so are we.

By the most conservative estimates, I-1183 would increase the number of liquor stores from 328 to more than 1,420, according to the state Office of Financial Management. And although supporters of I-1183 argue that only stores larger than 10,000 square feet could sell booze, a loophole in the poorly written initiative gives minimarts and gas stations the same opportunity.

In Section 103, it states the Liquor Control Board "shall not deny" a liquor license to stores less than 10,000 square feet if there is no other liquor retailer in the "trade area." But the initiative never defines trade area.

The state Liquor Control Board says it has no idea how to define "trade area," and there is no legal precedent. In fact, the loophole is large enough to encompass every corner of the state. And that will obviously increase the likelihood of problems, including teen access to liquor.

We know that teens don't drink for the taste. They drink for the buzz. And grocery stores, even large ones, have a dismal record of keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors. In compliance tests by the Liquor Control Board, grocery stores sell alcohol to teens an average of one out of every four attempts.

Supporters of I-1183 say it will increase enforcement and penalties. But who is going to do the enforcement? The Liquor Control Board has about 50 compliance officers throughout the state. Under I-1183, there would still be about 50 officers, but more than four times the number of outlets selling liquor.

Supporters of I-1183 say increased liquor sales will bring in money for state and local government. That's like someone setting your house on fire and then telling you there's plenty of water to put it out. And it's noteworthy that I-1183 has such little support from cities and counties. We see the costs every day, and from a financial perspective, it's just not worth it. And of course, Costco doesn't have to respond to an alcohol-involved tragedy that impacts a family.

The studies are clear: There is a clear connection between the availability of liquor and public-safety problems such as higher rates of underage drinking, higher rates of violence and higher rates of drunken driving.

We are at the point of an important decision. Either we can say our citizens initiative process is for sale to the highest bidder, or we can reject I-1183.

One company shouldn't have the power to alter the landscape of our state so dramatically. I hope you will join me and hundreds of other emergency first responders across Washington, and let's reject I-1183.

Kelly Fox is president of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters.

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