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SB348 and the OLCC: Second Verse, Same as the First

The OLCC is at it–and in **it–again. In another show of their even-handed enforcement, OLCC director Steve Pharo has been caught playing footsie with beer and wine lobbyist Paul Romain. The goal: railroad a bill that would benefit the western supermarket chain Grocery Outlet, increase competition in a legal manner, and, most harrowing of all, hurt the pocket books of the middle-man distributors.

Harry Esteve of The Oregonian has the background:

As far back as 1986, the chain was told by OLCC that it could store wine at its central warehouse in Clackamas and ship the wine to its stores, which sells groceries and wine at prices that are often lower than other stores by 20 percent or more.

In late 2007, the chain was told it could no longer cut out the distributor middleman. That prompted a lawsuit and proposed legislation. The issue is now awaiting a decision of the state Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, [Grocery Outlet lobbyist] DiLorenzo and [Senator] Atkinson are pushing a bill that would essentially moot the court decision and allow the grocery chain to continue operating as it has.

Thus we have Senate Bill 438, which, “Authorizes holder of off-premises sales license, under certain conditions, to store wine at licensed premises for transport to other licensed premises for sale at retail.” Basically, it allows for what Grocery Outlet had been doing for roughly twenty years before it became a problem.

Our friends at the OLCC don’t like that, and are making it clear. Earlier this month, emails between Romain and Pharo came to the public eye, giving us all a lovely look at the OLCC’s objectivity. Among other obvious breaches of neutrality, Romain quite considerately pointed out, “There are some amendments to 438 that expand the storage and delivery privilige to all premises licenses. I believe that would present a huge fiscal for the OLCC in tax collection and control.” (I imagine an attached winky-face was mistakenly removed by his secretary.) To be extra helpful, Romain also sent along a document titled “Senate Bill 438 Talking Points”, just in case his minions needed some help with their homework. This exchange, notably, came after Kitzhaber asked the agency to remain neutral, a point also noted in the emails.

Romain, for his part, has faced the accusations like any well-trained James Bond villain:

Romain chuckled out loud when he heard the charge. He said it’s his job to inform the OLCC about issues important to his clients. Furthermore, he said, the beer and wine distributors sought and were given approval to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of OLCC.

“Of course I’m communicating with them on a regular basis,” he said, suggesting the release of the emails by DiLorenzo was more of a political stunt than an attempt to reveal supposed wrongdoing by OLCC. [OC note: He then tapped his fingers together menacingly, muttering, “Good. Good.”]

Pharo himself has called this all a crazy coincidence (no, really), Romain has accused DiLorenzo of being a drama queen, and Atkinson has called everyone meanie poo-poo heads and defriended them on Facebook. Thus, it would seem the Oregon public will have to wait and see if SB 348 survives the Senate before we get any meaningful discourse. Meanwhile, as we all sit back with a sad sigh and watch the political mud-slinging, OLCC Chair Philip D. Lang has this finger of wisdom to wag at the other side, namely Senator Lee Beyer, D-Springfield:

I have been at somewhat of a loss trying to understand why  you…are spending so much effort on SB 348…You of all people, just coming off several years as Chair of the Public Utilities Commission knows that special interest legislation does not make good public policy.

Cheers, sir. Cheers.

[ also has the story here, and the emails can be read in full here.]

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