11/04/2014 11:42 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST

Saskatchewan tasting five options for liquor sales

REGINA - A paper that has been expected since Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall started musing last spring about privatizing provincially owned liquor stores is suggesting several options for the future sale of booze.

The paper released Tuesday by Don McMorris, minister responsible for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, suggests everything from the status quo to expanded government involvement to Alberta-style fully private retailers.

"It has been over 50 years since there (have) been major changes in the retailing of alcohol in the province," McMorris said.

Saskatchewan introduced private wine stores in 2009 and more recently approved four private liquor outlets.

In the throne speech last month, the government reaffirmed its commitment to move away from building Crown liquor stores.

"My government will not spend one more taxpayers' dollar building liquor stores,'' read the speech.

"Whatever change happens in terms of liquor retailing, from our perspective, beyond what we've done already, we would need a mandate from the electorate,'' Premier Brad Wall said at the time.

McMorris said new liquor stores will be needed because of growing demand, but the government wants to hear from stakeholders and customers before moving forward.

Saskatchewan has 75 government liquor stores and 190 franchises operating in private businesses in rural Saskatchewan. There are also 450 off-sale stores and three private outlets. A fourth store is set to open in Regina next spring.

Cathy Sproule, the NDP Opposition's critic on the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, called the discussion an "interesting diversion." She suggested there are more pressing issues for the government to address.

"The five options they've laid out are interesting. I'm fearful that the government has already made a decision," she said. "(The premier's view) suggests that if we build more liquor stores, we're taking money out of the coffers to build hospitals, which is completely wrong in my view."

The Opposition is advocating for a sixth option, she said, which would involve keeping the province's hybrid approach, but modernizing the liquor and gaming authority. That would include increasing operating hours, improving the pricing system and possibly looking at the sale of alcohol from grocery kiosks, she said.

"It has to operate as an efficient business."

McMorris said the paper is open for comment online until Jan. 30 and he expects a high level of public interest. The government wants to have a firm position prior to the next election, which is expected in April 2016, he said.

"I believe the reason for the debate is that we haven't talked about it in 50 years," he said. "I do know that for a lot of people in the province it's not an ideological debate, it's a debate around what is practical."