Legislation to allow senior centers to serve alcohol on site without repeatedly applying for a liquor license is finding traction in the Legislature, with many in support of helping the centers raise funds through the sale of alcohol.
Senior centers can often be the nucleus of camaraderie and fellowship within communities, but many struggle to find funding to operate.
Instead, many turn to hosting events to raise money for activities and operational costs. Yet they can’t serve spirits or wine and beer without a special event license. Those cost $60 per day, and nonprofit organizations must apply for them 45 days in advance. Even then they can only receive 12 per calendar year.
Legislation proposed by Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, would allow nonprofits whose main purpose is to provide social activities for senior citizens to apply for a license to serve spirits, beer and wine. Organizations would pay a yearly cost of $720, or the equivalent of $60 for 12 permits allowed under current law.
Nelson said allowing offering the new license would help senior centers raise money for housekeeping and operational costs.
“It’s hard for them to hold events where they actually serve liquor,” Nelson said in a floor speech for passage of the bill. “This helps senior centers to actually raise funds.”
Nelson said that the idea for the proposal came to her from the West Seattle Senior Center. Karen Sisson, executive director for the center, testified in favor of the bill at a committee hearing last year. She said that senior centers help individuals connect with one another and have an important place in communities across Washington.
“Senior centers are focal points in the community,” Sisson said. “We like to serve spirits, wine and beer mainly at special events where there’s a dinner and entertainment.”
Yet not everyone is in favor of allowing easier access to alcohol at senior centers. Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said that until there is adequate funding to provide treatment options for those with a substance abuse problem, access to alcohol should be limited.
“This leaves very poor messages for young people,” Darneille said. “Since we can’t afford [treatment], we should look at prevention.”
Nelson’s proposal passed out of the Senate Feb. 10, 40-8. It’s now under consideration in the House, where it passed unanimously out of the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee Thursday.
A companion bill to Senate Bill 5310 was voted out of the House Feb. 3, 94-1. Sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, House Bill 1063 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Friday. Both bills were heard last year, but failed to pass out of their chambers of origin.
Derek Franklin of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention testified last year against House Bill 1063. He said he was worried about more people drinking and driving as a result of the legislation, and urged lawmakers to consider those in recovery for substance abuse.
“The normalization of alcohol and public consumption is a concern,” Franklin said. “We support the social component of senior centers...but think about folks in recovery. They can’t allow themselves to go to establishments where alcohol is served.”
To apply for the proposed license, senior centers must meet certain criteria: be qualified nonprofits, be open at times required by the state liquor control board, provide limited food service and require all servers to have a valid alcohol server training permit.
Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, was one of the lawmakers to vote the proposal out of committee. He said it could be helpful to him and some of his colleagues in the future.
“One of my members just said that 20 years from now, we’ll be glad we passed this bill,” Condotta said.