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Despite initiative defeat, Costco still pushing liquor privatization

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
A shopper holds up a bottle of wine from a large selection at a Costco warehouse store.

Voters defeated not one, but two liquor privatization measures last fall -- one of them sponsored by Costco. But a key lawmaker says that's not stopping the Issaquah warehouse chain from continuing to push the issue in Olympia.

Currently in Washington hard alcohol is sold only through state and contract stores. Costco wants to offer spirits alongside its current beer and wine selection – as it does in the majority of states where it operates.

You might think after defeat at the ballot box, Costco would take a breather in its campaign to privatize liquor sales in Washington. But Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt told reporters Costco is now working the issue behind the scenes in this year's legislature.

"I do believe the privatization of liquor will get some steam. Costco has been down here and they've been meeting with people. They're working with people who come out of industry who I know personally who have forty-years experience."

Still it's getting late in the session for a change of this magnitude to gain traction. Costco attorney John Sullivan would not comment on the company's legislative strategy but says "it is a continuing objective of ours to sell spirits in an increased number of states."

State Senator Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is a champion of getting the state out of the liquor business. Once again this year he's introduced a bill to privatize sales. But he says he has not been approached by Costco. The conservative Democrat, who is often at odds with Democratic leadership, says he's also been told his bill will not get a hearing.

Last year, Costco spent nearly $4 million to pass Initiative 1100, a liquor privatization ballot measure. Other major backers included Safeway, Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart and the Northwest Grocers Association. In November, the initiative lost by seven percentage points. Some political watchers think voters were confused by a competing measure, I-1105.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.
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