Lawmakers abandoning privatization effort

May 8, 2014

T hose who, like us, saw a glimmer of hope a couple of years ago when they viewed the initial proposal for privatizing Pennsylvania’s antiquated, consumer-unfriendly state liquor system wouldn’t recognize what’s currently being bounced around the state Senate.

Initial legislative efforts, and even a bill passed last year by the state House, would have gotten the state out of the way entirely to allow private enterprise to handle the sale of wine and liquor in the commonwealth. But the Senate now seems determined to produce a bill that holds something for pretty much everyone to dislike.

A framework for legislation that’s making the rounds of the Legislature’s upper chamber would fragment the system in a way that seemingly would make it difficult for consumers to know where they could buy what. Under the plan, the state stores – the sacred cows of those beholden to organized labor and others who don’t want to make it one whit easier for Pennsylvania adults to get their hands on “demon rum” – would continue to exist as the sole outlets for hard liquor. We’re still waiting to hear a good reason for that.

From there, it gets even more confusing. According to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the proposal would do away with the current restriction on selling alcohol where gasoline is sold. It also would allow supermarkets that already sell beer to add wine to their offerings, no doubt under the same ridiculous rules that require the beverages to be segregated from the rest of the stores’ offerings and sold at different cash registers. Beer distributors also could sell wine, as well as smaller quantities of beer than the cases they are now permitted to dispense. The senators also hope to throw a bone to casino operators by allowing them to offer intoxicating beverages to their customers for an additional two hours, until 4 a.m.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no mechanism to allow for new businesses that might be able to offer consumers not only products, but expertise about those products that often seems to be in short supply among the current state store workforce. And the state would maintain its grip on wholesale liquor and wine operations, forcing retailers, whoever they might be, to sell whatever it is that the commonwealth sees fit to buy.

The Associated Press reported “lobbyists for retail chains, transporters and distillers were in the Pennsylvania Capitol this week in hopes of influencing any eventual outcome.” Which special interest will win? Stay tuned. The only thing certain is that what’s best for Pennsylvania’s citizens isn’t likely to be the primary consideration.

We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see how this all plays out. Lawmakers weren’t able to get a consensus on a proposal by Wednesday, when they packed their bags and left Harrisburg for nearly a month off. The people’s business can wait. There are re-election campaigns to be run, after all.

Common sense tells us that the state has no business being involved in the wholesale or retail wine and liquor business. This is one of those cases where the private sector could almost assuredly do a better job than government. Private enterprise works just fine in nearly every other state in the union. Money continues to roll into state coffers, and sales to minors are effectively policed. But common sense often seems to be rather uncommon in the marble halls of Harrisburg. If it’s spotted there, perhaps it should be slapped with an endangered species tag.



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