Corbett’s PLCB plan deserves support

January 30, 2013

And the folks at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board still wonder why most Pennsylvanians think the state would be better off without them?

The latest “you can’t make this stuff up” move from the PLCB came to light last week when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the organization’s chief executive officer, Joe Conti, would be retiring as of the end of this week but would be resurrected as a consultant at a rate of $80.16 an hour. That figure is not a misprint. And we thought the clerks in the state liquor stores had a sweet pay rate.

Conti, who will be returning to the PLCB in his new role Feb. 19, can work as many as 95 days under this deal. In total, he could rake in about $57,000.

According to the Inquirer story, “A board spokeswoman said the arrangement will allow (the PLCB) to continue benefiting from Conti’s experience and expertise.”

Give us a moment while we stifle a laugh, something we have done with regularity while observing the PLCB during Conti’s tenure.

Some of you might remember a few years back when the PLCB awarded a contract for about $175,000 to a Pittsburgh consulting firm that instructed state liquor store employees on the proper way to treat customers. It was bad enough that such training was deemed necessary, but then we learned that the president of the consulting company was the husband of the state store system’s regional manager for Western Pennsylvania. No laws were broken, but it certainly didn’t pass the “smell test.”

Then came a state auditor general’s report on the PLCB, which found that the agency spent in excess of $66 million on a computerized inventory management system that had the end result of creating product shortages at PLCB warehouses that, in turn, led managers of individual liquor stores to hoard some products, making them unavailable to other stores. At the same time, in the Pittsburgh region, overall inventory ordered through the new system far outstripped warehousing capacity, leading the PLCB to stash more than 70,000 cases of excess wine and spirits in scores of nontemperature-controlled trailers, the auditor general found.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a group that favors privatization of the state store system, noted that while PLCB officials were bragging about record sales, they failed to note that, according to the auditor general’s report, net revenues from state stores fell by nearly half between 2008 and 2010.

And finally, the state Ethics Commission is conducting an investigation into allegations from the state inspector general’s office that Conti and other PLCB leaders improperly took gifts and other favors from vendors a couple of years ago. Certainly, Conti is due a presumption of innocence at this juncture, but considering the circumstances, is it really wise to keep him on board?

Fortunately, there’s at least a glimmer of hope that the PLCB’s shenanigans could become a thing of the past.

Gov. Tom Corbett yesterday announced his push to jump-start efforts to privatize wine and liquor sales here, putting Pennsylvania in the company of virtually every other state in the country.

Under the governor’s plan, some retail beer distributors would be able to sell not only beer and wine, but also hard liquor. Grocery, convenience, drugstores and big-box stores such as Walmart would be able to sell wine and beer.

Arguments by those who oppose privatization – especially that turning sales of wine and liquor over to private enterprise would somehow create a Wild West atmosphere, or that consumers would see fewer choices – are easily refuted.

We have faith that the free-enterprise system can do a better job of selling legal beverages to the people of Pennsylvania than an arm of the state government, and we would urge lawmakers in Harrisburg, especially those in leadership positions, to either work with the governor to make his proposal reality or, at the very least, get out of the way. The state has been stuck with this Prohibition-era albatross for far too long.



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