Sobriety Threatened

Also: the week's viaduct news, Hu meets Clippy, and the city does right by the homeless.


A first reading of U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman's Friday, April 21, decision of Costco Wholesale Corp. v. Hoen shows the giant Issaquah-based discount retailer winning virtually every point in its battle with the state liquor commission. If Pechman's decision survives appeal, sellers of wine will be able to order freely from in-state or out-of-state producers, bypass wholesalers and brokers, warehouse their own backlogs, charge any price they choose, and change prices at will—practices forbidden in the past as somehow threatening the sobriety of the citizenry. The only thing Costco's lawyers asked for but didn't get was the right to sell to other retailers. Media coverage of the decision so far has concentrated on two things: First, the possibility that cutting out the middleman and eliminating mandatory markups could result in lower beer and wine prices. The truth is no one knows what a free market will do to prices. Second, the ability of big wine and beer operations to offer deep discounts raises concern that midproduction breweries and wineries might be wiped off the shelf. This is possible but ignores the fact that the pricing of crafted beverages is not a race to the bottom. As for the liquor commission itself, a big share of its mandate has been removed at a stroke, but don't expect it to exit anytime soon: It still totally controls distribution and sale of hard liquor in Washington (nearly $650 million gross sales in 2005), which poured $155 million into state coffers—comfortably more than twice the total gross revenue from beer taxes, wine taxes, and license fees for taverns, bars, and restaurants put together. ROGER DOWNEY


Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck might start a citizens initiative drive for November's ballot that would call for replacing the dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct with expanded surface streets and high-capacity transit, instead of building another elevated freeway or burying Highway 99 in a tunnel. "There may be more radical approaches coming," says Steinbrueck, whose father co-authored the initiative that saved the Pike Place Market from redevelopment. Steinbrueck is responding to a letter from Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald to the City Council that said $2.4 billion in state and federal funds cannot be used for Steinbrueck's preferred surface/transit replacement option. "The MacDonald letter really screws us," says Steinbrueck. Specifically, Steinbrueck has lost the support of City Council President Nick Licata to study or place on the November ballot the surface/transit option. "It's too impractical," says Licata. "I don't see giving it a look if there isn't any money." Without Licata's vote, Steinbrueck is gloomy about the prospects of getting a majority of the council to support studying the surface/transit option further and then putting it on November's ballot alongside the above-ground and tunnel options, which are headed for the ballot in any case. GEORGE HOWLAND JR.

Meanwhile, Ballard Oil owner-operator Warren Aakervik Jr. recently sent one of his drivers out on a Saturday afternoon to see how long it would take to get to Harbor Island using only surface streets. A half-hour round trip turned into an hour and a half—a haul Aakervik uses to illustrate what a bear a cut-and-cover tunnel replacement would be for drivers hauling flammable and combustible material who would be banned from the route. Mayoral spokesperson Marianne Bichsel points out that, in fact, such material already is banned from Highway 99's Battery Street Tunnel, suggesting that large trucks are currently making do with surface routes. Balderdash, says Aakervik. He points to a loophole that exempts heating oil from the list of prohibited combustibles. But this past September, at the request of the Seattle Department of Transportation, the City Council unanimously closed that loophole. Undaunted, Aakervik's drivers have kept right on truckin'. "We will continue to haul oil through until the state determines whether their jurisdiction takes precedent over what city law is," says Aakervik. "Is Big Brother in control, or is little brother?" MIKE SEELY


On Comedy Central, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart explained that Chinese President Hu Jintao visited with President Bush last week. "But before that," Stewart said, Hu "stopped off in the other Washington to meet with a more important person, Bill Gates. He literally met with Bill Gates before our president." That made a lot of people howl, not just Stewart's audience. Hu's visit to Redmond was affirmation of Microsoft's human-rights kowtowing in return for entrée to the vast Chinese market. According to Amnesty International, Microsoft and other American technology giants have aided and abetted a "dramatic rise in the number of people detained or sentenced for Internet-related offenses" in China, which uses Microsoft technology to ban such words as "democracy," "Tibet," and even "human rights." Microsoft and Yahoo! told U.S. congressional leaders there's little they can do–they can't control customer use of their products (!), and withdrawing from China would be just what their "domestic competitors" would want. Stewart ran a film clip of Gates, with Hu at his side, observing, "One thing that China and Microsoft have in common is a belief in technology innovation as a key and essential enabler." Then, up popped a graphic, that noxious little Office Assistant, the paper clip, with a cartoon bubble stating, "You seem to be equivocating under morally dubious circumstances. Would you like some help?" It was one of the few times we welcomed Clippy's intrusion on our screen. RICK ANDERSON

Microsoft shouldn't get all the heat. Totalitarianism got a free pass from all the state's bigwigs, apparently. Agence France-Press reported that "former Washington state governor Gary Locke and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jinchao said no one raised the issue of human rights with Hu during the two-day visit in the Seattle area." How about a little shame to go with your Starbucks coffee? KNUTE BERGER

Social Services

For a while, it looked like the city would kick about 250 chronically homeless people to the streets, at least a couple of days a week, due to cuts in funding for shelter beds. The mayor's office and the city's Human Services Department (HSD) insisted that it was time to shift focus from shelters to transitional housing. But late last week, HSD announced that it would restore funding to shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the Archdiocesan Housing Authority, and SHARE/WHEEL to the tune of $488,000. Left out in the cold was the Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP). The city cut about $70,000 from CAMP's short-term motel voucher program. Someone didn't get the memo, however. Last week, CAMP got a call from the city looking for help for a homeless blind person. PHILIP DAWDY

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