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Politics Northwest

The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

March 6, 2014 at 11:47 AM

Senate passes bill that could reduce liquor prices

Customers could find liquor at lower prices in restaurants and bars if a bill that narrowly passed on Thursday in the state Senate advances.

Since voters approved an initiative in 2011 to privatize liquor sales, all liquor retailers, including supermarkets and big-box stores, have to pay a quarterly license-issuance fee equal to 17 percent of all their liquor sales.

Under Senate Bill 6220,  liquor retailers would not have to pay the fee on spirits sold to businesses that allow customers to drink on site.

The Senate voted 26-23 to pass the bill, which now waits for consideration in the state House.

Lawmakers passed a law last year to allow former state liquor stores to sell spirits to bars and restaurants without paying the fee, but left out supermarkets, big-box stores and other retailers.

Sen. John Braun,  Centralia Republican and prime sponsor of the bill, said the exclusion was unfair, and he introduced the measure to restore competition. “We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” he said.

Senators introduced 19 amendments to the bill, most of which were not adopted.

Maury Island Sen. Sharon Nelson, Senate Democrat leader, opposed SB 6220. She said the state would lose money that could be spent on education and called for a more time to examine problems left after privatization.

Bruce Beckett, government affairs director for the Washington Restaurant Association, said an exemption for other retailers would mean lower prices and more choices for restaurant and bar owners.

Some retailers inflate prices to help offset the cost of license-issuance fees, he said. Stores would be able to offer products to restaurants and bars at lower prices if the bill passes, which could trickle down to customers.

The state Office of Financial Management estimates that if the measure becomes law, it would cost the state more than $1.2 million by June 2015.

Beckett thinks that’s too high. Most restaurants are already buying liquor from wholesale stores exempt from the fee, he said.

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