A Tale of Two Initiatives

Last year Washington voters went to the polls and defeated a Costco-sponsored initiative to liberalize the state’s wine, beer and spirits markets. The vote was 46.5% Yes and 53.4% No. Initiative 1100 mustered a majority in only four counties — Mason, Kitsap, Island and Douglas — and lost in the Pierce-King-Snohomish urban corridor.

What a difference a year makes! Initiative 1183, also sponsored by Costco, passed handily with nearly 60% of the state-wide vote. Significantly, only four counties voted against the ballot issue this time and all the major population centers were in the Yes column. What happened? Herewith some observations.

1. Times Have Changed

Times have changed? Yes, obviously, although this doesn’t really explain such a large apparent one-year shift in voter behavior. Still it is worth considering how much times have changed if only to gauge how anachronistic Washington’s liquor control regulations seem today.

Obviously the most important factor is our continuing recovery from Prohibition’s hangover — attitudes and beliefs about alcohol consumption have changed much more and faster than the relevant legal institutions. A second factor may be the changing demographic profile of  the state, which once featured a stronger Scandinavian-American influence that was sympathetic to what I have called “the Swedish Solution” to liquor sales. More current Washington residents come from or have lived in non-control states and see no harm in private liquor sales.

Finally, market power has shifted, with large retailers embracing alcohol as a high margin product segment. Even Wal-Mart sells wine — who would have guessed? Increasingly these firms want to be freed of regulations (apart from obvious legal age restrictions) that reduce business efficiency.

2. Political Gridlock

Most people believe that public policy should be the realm of elected officials and that private businesses should not have too much influence on the laws that regulate them. We know that special interests have more clout in practice than the civics textbooks say they should have in theory, but there are limits and they should be respected. For Costco to write its own laws was seen by some voters as crossing the line. Better to vote No and let the legislature handle privatization.

But political gridlock is the name of the game today and it seems to have gotten worse in the last year as indicated by the continuing federal budget impasse fiasco. Politicians are frustrated with their inability to take decisive action and the voters are fed up. Washington voters are usually suspicious of initiatives, but in this political environment some ballot issues are seen as a lesser evil to grid-locked legislation.

(The exchange between Sean Sullivan and Rand Sealey in the Comments section of this Washington Wine Report post is particularly instructive in this regard.)

3. Voter’s Remorse

A lot of voters wanted to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales last year (changing times), but they were unhappy with their choices and confused by the process. There were three different campaigns in 2010 — Costco’s pro 1100 push, a campaign for an alternative law (Initiative 1105, sponsored in part by distributors threatened by 1100’s attack on the three-tier system) and an anti-everything effort (ironically also financed by distributors but also including other groups).

Picky voters cast a No vote — they wanted liquor market reform, but not this way.  This time around, their standards were a bit lower. They no longer expected to have really good choices (see item 2 above), so many people held their noses and voted Yes. This isn’t the way to make state laws, but it is the best choice we have, they said.

4. Divide and Conquer

Finally, the architects of I-1183 crafted their proposal to weaken opposition to it. Last year’s I-1100 was designed to create a nearly perfect market environment for large retailers like Costco. Lots of vested interests were threatened and they reacted with vigor.

There was less opposition to this year’s proposal. In particular, while spirits sales will be privatized and the wine market liberalized, I don’t think there is much direct impact on beer. So beer distributors sensibly stayed out of the fight this time. And I-1183 made a point to increase government revenues from alcohol sales, too, eliminating another potential concern.

So whereas in 2010 it was Costco and other big retailers versus distributors battling for voter attention, this time Costco was opposed by a less effective coalition of anti-alcohol groups, state liquor store operators and employees and some Washington wine producers who fear that they will suffer in the new market environment. The opposition was divided … and conquered.

What’s Next?

It is too soon to know what is going to happen when all of I-1183’s new rules go into effect. Certainly the biggest effects will be on spirit sales. The wine impacts will be smaller (but still significant) and quite diverse. Some wine producers are better prepared than others to compete on price through volume discounts, for example.

Some retailers will no doubt reduce wine shelf space (at least in the short term) in order to make room for spirits. Others may expand the space allocated to wine and spirits at the expense lower-margin items. And big box liquor retailers like Total Wine and BevMo are likely to enter the market, too.

It will be interesting to see how the wine market evolves in Washington as it adjusts to this new environment — more to come on this question. It will also be interesting to see if politicians get the message that some voters put into the election bottle.

In the meantime, I plan to encourage my students to study these election results at a micro level to pick out and try to explain more clearly the key electoral shifts that have ushered in this new alcoholic beverage regime.

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Click here to view an interactive 2011 election map provided by the Washington State Secretary of State’s office. Click here to see the county-by-county results for Initiative 1100 in the 2010 general election. Click on the map above to see the Wine & Vines article where it appears.

Kudos to Sean Sullivan and his Washington Wine Report blog for his thorough analysis of the initiatives in both 2010 and 2011. Sean opposed I-1183 because of its potential negative impact on the Washington wine industry, but correctly predicted that the measure would pass.

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