Time to Deal

The cozy relationship between the Liquor Control Board and the people it's supposed to be monitoring is falling apart—finally.

The Washington State Liquor Control Board has fallen on sorry times. Created after Prohibition to enforce the making, importation, distribution, and sale of all alcoholic beverages in the state, it soon developed into a reliable pasturing ground for superannuated pols. The genial corruption game began to get more iffy in the reformist atmosphere of the Evans and Gardner governorships, but serving on or working for the liquor board remained, and remains even today, a great way to collect favors and junkets from the booze industry. Times have changed, though. The courts no longer allow the board to claim that any regulation, no matter how absurd, is legitimate to support the cause of keeping liquor out of the wrong hands (and providing a reliable source of income for the state monopoly stores). The cozy relationship between the board and the people it's supposed to keep an eye on—the importers, wholesalers, and distributors—is breaking down, as big-box retailers and small family producers alike have begun to question the whole rigid, inefficient, and monopolistic process of getting beer, wine, and liquor from producer to customer. The board's life got really difficult in 2004, when local retail giant Costco sued in federal court essentially to gut the whole rickety system, at least as regards wine. Last year, the judge ruled firmly in Costco's favor on a number of important issues, and hinted that she was ready to take on the constitutionality of the entire system. The Legislature revised some state laws in accord with her decision, but the board and its pals in the wholesale and retail business swore they would appeal. Last week, the judge, in effect, told them: "Go ahead and appeal, and lots of luck. But in the meantime, I suggest that the Legislature might want to look into a complete revamp of its liquor-control laws in the coming session, to be ready when the appeals court rules, as I am confident it will, that my decision stands." The board and its lawyers claim that it needs all the regs it now has to protect the public from unscrupulous products and marketing. That assertion would be more convincing if there were any sign that the board pays attention to dubious marketing that already exists. As Robin Pollard of the nonprofit Washington Wine Institute pointed out recently in a letter to the liquor board's deputy administrator, Rick Garza, a number of products sold in Washington state, including some of the state stores' most popular and lucrative brands, appear to be in clear violation of state labeling laws. Two weeks after receiving the letter, Garza still hasn't responded, nor has he answered numerous calls asking for comment. Meanwhile, the call to look into the board's enforcement practices has spread from the winemakers represented by the Washington Wine Institute to legislators like Jeanne Kohl-Welles, chair of the state Senate Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee, which will undoubtedly be taking on further revisions in regulations to keep Washington compliant with the federal courts. If there ever was a time for the board to recognize that its ass—oh, all right, its credibility—is on the line, the time is now. By hunkering down and hoping conditions will revert to the cozy old under-the-table way of doing things, the board risks not just certain defeat, but possible abolition as well. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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