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Oregon Lawmakers Consider Alternative To Liquor Privatization Initiative

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
he Oregon Liquor Control Commission sells liquor through about 240 contracted small stores like this one in Salem.

Oregon grocery store owners want to sell hard liquor, just like their counterparts in Washington do. 

There’s a liquor privatization initiative in the works for this November. But Oregon lawmakers are considering changes of their own as a possible way to head off the ballot measure.

The resolution of the debate would affect liquor shoppers like Kathleen Young. She walks out of a Salem liquor store clutching a brown paper bag“Basic whiskey. That's it,” she says..

Young says she has to drive out of her way to get to this small downtown storefront, but she says it's worth it.

"I actually prefer the liquor stores. I came from a state where it was allowed in the grocery stores. And the quality and the regulation is a whole lot better in the state-run stores,” Young says.

Another customer, Tamara White, had a different reason for wanting to keep Oregon's liquor system the way it is. She thinks teens would more easily get their hands on hard alcohol if it was available in grocery stores.

"Too accessible, I think. That's my opinion. I think it needs to be regulated where it's at,” White says.

But if the Washington liquor privatization vote in 2011 is any indication, a lot of people want to buy booze at Safeway and Costco. Oregon Liquor Control Commission chair Rob Patridge says he hears that viewpoint all the time.

"Any cocktail party I go to they say why can't I get it at more locations?" Patridge told lawmakers.

Patridge made his case for allowing liquor sales in grocery stores to a panel of Oregon lawmakers. Patridge says there's a strong sense within the commission that Oregon needs to change the way it controls hard drinks. Here's how the current system works: The state owns all the liquor but sells it through small, privately contracted stores. The OLCC's proposal would keep the current stores but would also allow large groceries to sell it, too. Patridge said law enforcement officials he spoke with weren't too keen on smaller stores selling spirits.

"There was not a strong interest in having kind of the California model that every single little convenience store you could go into and buy hard alcohol,” Patriidge says.

But some lawmakers such as Republican Representative Tim Freeman said keeping booze out of small stores might not work everywhere.

"Some of us represent very rural districts, so when you start talking about exclusively large store sales, you leave out entire communities,” Freeman says.

That's one element that the OLCC proposal has in common with the initiative floated by the grocery industry. But the two proposals differ in other ways. The OLCC wants to continue to control the wholesale distribution of hard liquor, even as it allows more retail locations. In the initiative, groceries would cut the state entirely out of the equation. Some lawmakers said they weren't comfortable going that far. Republican Representative Bill Kennemer said he'd prefer the legislature to act, rather than waiting for a ballot measure.

"I think it gives us a chance to take our best shot at how to do this better, and then it gives us the possibility for some adjustments over the upcoming years,” Kennemer says.

A spokesman for the grocery industry wouldn't speak on tape but said the OLCC proposal continues what he called "a Prohibition-era monopoly on the sale of liquor."