May 05, 2004 11:00 pm

The antiquated Oregon Liquor Control Commission is moving forward with a pilot program that will allow distilled spirits to be sold at six selected supermarkets. Some liquor store operators are crying foul while others say the trial run is a step toward privatization that is long overdue.

About the only thing that is certain about the controversy generated by the OLCC's supermarket plan is that the concept behind the OLCC needs to be evaluated. The 2005 Legislature should appoint a task force to study the state agency, look at its costs and benefits, and come up with a plan to bring liquor control, sales and distribution into the 21st century. The OLCC and the state need to show that a state bureaucracy is the best way to address liquor control, sales and costs.

Oregon is one of only 18 states that remains in the liquor distribution and sales business. The OLCC evolved in 1933 as the Prohibition Era came to an end. The agency controls the price and the distribution of distilled spirits in Oregon. The result is that distilled spirits are taxed at a much higher rate than beer and wine, and a good share of the taxes paid go to support what may be an unnecessary state agency.

The OLCC has made some changes over the years. In the 1980s, the state-owned "green fronts'' gave way to retail sales agents who operate as independent contractors under the supervision of the OLCC but without any of the benefits of state employment. The OLCC directs where liquor outlets can be placed, who will run them and how much commission they will receive. Phasing out the green fronts and moving toward selected supermarket sales have been the biggest changes in the OLCC's history.

The time has come to take a thorough look at the agency and what it means to the people of Oregon. Could the state save money and actually benefit by privatizing the sale and distribution of liquor? Would retail sales agents fare better without government control? And could licensing responsibilities be moved to other state agencies?

Those who oppose an end to the liquor control bureaucracy point to the possibility that alcohol abuse would increase, more drunk drivers would be on the road and alcohol would be more easily accessed by teens. Those issues would have to be addressed, but the fact is that beer and wine provide far more alcohol to consumers and are involved in more traffic accidents than distilled spirits, and that teens intent on getting alcohol already do so. Thirty-two non-control states could provide insight into what their experiences have been.

Testing supermarket sales isn't a bad idea. But an even better one would be thoroughly testing the concept behind the OLCC.

Editorials in this column are the opinion of The Observer's editorial board. The board is comprised of Ron Horton, publisher; Ted Kramer, editor; Jeff Petersen, news editor; and Pierre LaBossierre, wire editor. Letters from readers, signed columns on this page and cartoons represent the opinions of the writer/artist and do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial board.