OLYMPIA — Citing state laws that forbid initiatives from including multiple subjects, opponents of liquor privatization urged the Washington State Supreme Court Thursday to overturn Initiative 1183, approved by state voters last fall.
"Nothing before June 1 is irreparable," argued Seattle attorney Michael Subit, asking the court to overturn I-1183 before its scheduled to take effect at the beginning of next month.
Attorneys for both sides say they believe justices will fast-track the decision. If the court overturns the measure, private retailers would not have the right to sell spirits, and state-run liquor stores would remain open. Proceeds from an online auction of stores would likely be returned to private buyers, according to state attorneys.
Justices peppered both sides with questions for about an hour, focusing primarily on the question of whether the initiative improperly asked voters to consider both ending the state's monopoly on liquor sales and creating a $10 million fund for public safety. Justices also questioned whether the initiative's ballot title misled voters by saying the public safety fund would use liquor fees instead of taxes.
"I think it's rather odd to call it a license when it sure looks like a tax," Justice Charlie Wiggins said.
Attorneys for Costco, which spent a record $19 million to pass the initiative, and the state argued that voters could easily determine what the initiative would do by reading the ballot description provided in the state's voter pamphlet.
"The question is, did it tell voters what the initaitive does? And it did," said Mary Tennyson of the state attorney general's office.
Initiative supporters argue that liquor privatization and public safety are closely tied together and can be considered a single subject.
The Washington Association for Substance and Violence Prevention, the initiative's primary opponent, filed a suit in Cowlitz County Superior Court to stop the privatization of liquor sales. A second plaintiff, Dave Grumbois of Longview, joined the suit largely because a state-run liquor store rents space in a commercial building he owns on Ocean Beach Highway. That store has since closed, and Grumbois said he is negotiating with a new private tenant who plans to reopen the liquor store.
On March 19, Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning declared the initiative constitutional, a development that surprised many observers because it represented an about-face from Warning's initial ruling on the question, which had been made only one week earlier.
Costco and the state attorney general's office are defending the measure.
The state's Liquor Control Board has already been preparing to hand over the sale and distribution of spirits to the private sector. Earlier this month, Liquor Control raised more than $30 million in an auction of the state's 165 retail stores, including two in Longview. Nearly two dozen retail grocers in Cowlitz County have applied for licenses to sell liquor, and most have already began clearing shelf space for the new product.
Grumbois, who attended the Olympia hearing, said he felt opponents made a strong case.
"Here we are in the final leg of the marathon. It's a question of, in the end, if big business uses its influence to deceive the public and manipulate laws for its own selfish gain," Grumbois said.