The General Assembly and Governor Tom Wolf are about to apply the old adage – you’ve got to learn the rules to know how to break them properly. Lawmakers are poised to grant a special liquor permit, a "National Event Permit," for the Democratic conventioneers over the four days they are in Philadelphia in July. The party faithful will be permitted to drink in public places later than 2:00 a.m., and sell wine and spirits not purchased through our Soviet-style ministry of alcohol: the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). On any other occasion, everyday Pennsylvanians would be arrested and fined for doing the same.
It’s only for a few days, the argument goes, and the Republicans got the same break at their convention in Philadelphia in 2000. However, neither the bipartisan sentiment nor temporary nature of the permit diminishes the absurdity of the need for it in the first place, or the fact that it reeks of special status for the politically connected. The same privileges would never be granted to a convention of accountants, stamp collectors, or manufacturers.
"It’s time we improve the law for everyone permanently, not just temporarily for a privileged few," said PMA President David N. Taylor.
The good news is that for Senate Republicans privatization is still very much on the table in budget negotiations, according to caucus spokesperson Jennifer Kocher. At a Monday morning briefing at the PMA, House member Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill) said even though the budget and pension reform take the top two places in negotiations "they are prepared again to do privatization."
Just yesterday the House Rules Committee approved HB 1690, a liquor modernization bill sponsored by Speaker Mike Turzai. In an interview following the passage, Majority Leader Dave Reed said, "There are certainly other components that will help modernize the system, but overall we view this as the first step to fully privatizing our liquor system in Pennsylvania . . . it’s the most significant step in 80 years."
The modernization bill amends the current liquor laws as follows:
• Lifting restrictions on hours, state-mandated holidays, or Sunday operation of state liquor stores
• Allowing loyalty programs and coupons to be used at state stores
• Flexible pricing to allow state stores to offer discounts and sales
• Restaurants and hotels with licenses can sell up to four bottles of wine to be taken off premise
• Grocery stores that currently sell beer may also sell up to four bottles of wine
• Casinos can sell beer, liquor, and wine with no time restrictions
• Casinos can provide beer, liquor, and wine free of charge at events
Speaker Turzai added that discussions with the Governor have been favorable and he hopes the bill would eventually be signed once through the legislative process.
But wine sales in grocery stores are just one step, inevitably the first step, in privatizing Pennsylvania’s laws once and for all.
The PLCB is one of four tiers of distribution and sales of wine and spirits in Pennsylvania. It brings nothing to the table: not better selection, not lower prices, not increased enforcement. Statistics show that alcohol related accidents and illnesses are just as high or higher in Pennsylvania as in private sale states.
Laws covering beer sales and distribution are marginally better. The rallying cry of "Free the six-pack" just allowed nine gas stations to sell beer by decree of the Governor. The nine gas stations granted permission from the LCB applied for restaurant licenses. Under that category, the law says the stations must have food and seating for 30 and separate points-of-sale for beer and gas.
Earlier, the Board said it would wait for a Supreme Court decision concerning such licenses; a case where they are deep in the semantics of what constitutes "property," "location," and "place." Then, just two weeks ago, under the Governor’s pressure the Board balked and granted the licenses.
According to the Governor, those nine gas stations will make Pennsylvania "more inviting for customers and businesses." That’s only true if you happen to be driving on Eighth Street in Wyoming, Luzerne County and pull into Arch Six Packs, one of the nine approved. The other eight are in similarly less traveled places.
It’s all just more proof that the state should privatize the government monopoly that was created when prohibition ended in 1933 – just as nearly every other state has done.
Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) has a bill that will allow hundreds of convenience stores statewide, with some population limitations, to apply for "Convenience Store Permits" to sell beer.
Referring to the Governor’s pressure on the PLCB, Saylor said that administrative and executive fiats behind closed doors are not the method by which public policy should be changed or enacted, especially when the very issue at hand is currently under appeal before the state Supreme Court.
"While the governor can ask government management and enforcement agencies to change the rules, the Pennsylvania Constitution spells out the method to change and enact public policy: public debate, a positive vote by the majority of the House and the Senate, and a signature by the governor," Saylor said.
Pennsylvania has 4700 convenience stores, according to the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association (PFMA), a big supporter of the bill. "We owe it to our customers to give them the best selection and highest level of convenience possible," said Alex Baloga, vice president of external relations for the PFMA.
Monopolies have a way of doing the opposite of that. Pennsylvania, for instance, has 600 state stores. Given our population we should have four times that, say the House Republicans.
Another needed reform, sponsored by Rep. John Taylor (R-Philadelphia), would decriminalize the purchase of out-of-state wine and liquor. It passed the House in December.
"My bill will specifically allow residents of Pennsylvania to purchase wines, spirits and beer outside of the Commonwealth and bring those purchases home with them without fear of criminal prosecution," Taylor said.
Other reforms await action. The average Pennsylvania deserves the same convenience and selection that party loyalists do. It’s not the six-pack that needs freeing, it’s the consumer.