LONGVIEW, Wash. — A Cowlitz County judge on Monday upheld a voter-approved initiative privatizing liquor sales in Washington state, reversing an earlier decision that had left the measure's fate in question.
Initiative opponents said they would appeal the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court, but the decision enables the state to continue to move forward with implementing it.
Voters approved Initiative 1183 last fall to privatize liquor sales and dismantle Washington's state-run liquor system, which was formed in the 1930s in the aftermath of Prohibition. The measure, backed by retailing giant Costco, allows stores larger than 10,000 square feet to sell liquor, though it could allow smaller stores to sell liquor if there are no other outlets in a trade area.
Opponents filed suit, arguing that it violates state rules requiring initiatives to address only one subject because it included a provision to set aside $10 million for public safety funding.
Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning ruled on March 2 that the measure addressed two subjects because of the public safety provision. The state asked the judge to reconsider, arguing that public safety and liquor have always had a close relationship.
The state's rephrased argument shows "there is a well-established — albeit negative — relationship between public safety and liquor," Warning said.
"No one likes to say they're wrong," he said, "but I think I was previously."
Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Tennyson said the ruling enables the state to continue to consider liquor permits and other steps toward implementing the measure.
Michael Subit, an attorney for the plaintiffs, expressed surprise with the ruling, saying that motions for reconsideration are almost never granted. He said he would appeal directly to the state Supreme Court.
"We think we're right, and we think the judge was right the first time," Subit said. "We have a law here that everything needs to be considered on its merits and this violates that."
The lawsuit was filed in December by the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention, the landlord to a state-owned liquor store in Cowlitz County and two Red Apple stores in Kitsap County.
A similar lawsuit in King County Superior Court, which was filed by unions whose members stand to lose their jobs if the initiative is implemented, was put on hold in January, pending the Cowlitz court decision.
Despite the lawsuits, Washington state officials have been moving forward with implementing the initiative. The state Liquor Control Board opened a public auction online on March 8 of its state-run liquor stores. The auction ends April 19.
Nearly 20 states control the retail or wholesale liquor business. Some, such as Iowa and West Virginia, have relinquished partial control in recent years, but Washington would be the first in that group to abandon the liquor business entirely.