A spirited discussion

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission is on the right track in its efforts to relax the state's monopoly grip on the sale of spirits. It's unclear whether the Legislature will take any action during the short February session next year, but a list of recommendations from a special task force is a good start.

Much of the credit goes to OLCC Chairman Rob Patridge, who convened the task force last summer to explore changes in the state's liquor distribution system. Patridge, a former state representative for Medford, noted correctly that just getting competing interests to agree changes need to happen is a major victory.

Oregon tightly controls the sale of all distilled spirits in the state through a network of stores that are privately owned but licensed and controlled by the OLCC, which buys and sells all the liquor, paying the agents an 8.8 percent commission on sales. The move to loosen that control is partly in response to a likely ballot measure backed by a grocery store trade association that would privatize liquor sales, ending the state monopoly.

Already, the OLCC has voted to allow liquor stores to sell beer and wine in addition to the hard stuff. That came after a successful pilot project in which four stores that were allowed to add beer and wine saw bigger sales growth than other stores in the state.

Last week the task force suggested allowing large grocery stores — those bigger than 10,000 square feet — to sell liquor. Another proposal would also let small wine shops sell liquor.

Liquor store owners want a bigger share of the proceeds, a move they say would let them invest more money in their stores — making them more inviting or moving them to more attractive locations.

In this day and age, relegating liquor sales to small, shabby retail spaces — in effect, trying to discourage consumption — makes little sense, especially considering liquor is the state's third biggest source of income. And continuing the state's iron grip on anything concerning liquor will only hasten the effort to dismantle the whole system through a ballot measure, which happened in Washington to mixed reviews.

The commission will hold a hearing on the task force suggestions on Friday, with the goal of making specific recommendations to the Legislature. Putting the issues on the table for discussion is a step in the right direction, and lawmakers should take action in February.

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