One reason to privatize the Pa. state liquor store system
March 12, 2013By Lew Bryson, @lewbryson
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
Marc Stier recently presented six reasons to keep the state stores. I'd like to address his reasons, and then present one — just one! — solid reason why the Commonwealth should finally get out of the retail booze business.
Stier says that government control of alcohol beverage sales is a better way to reduce alcohol abuse, which remains a major public health hazard. Alcohol abuse is a serious issue, but think about what's actually being "controlled" in that sense by the current system: sales of wine and liquor, by the bottle, for home consumption. That's all.
Wine, beer, and spirits are sold at privately-owned, government-regulated businesses across Pennsylvania. They are sold at bars, restaurants, wineries, breweries and brewpubs, delis, beer distributors, and a growing number of licensed grocery stores. They're sold at sports stadiums, private clubs, community fundraisers. To fully "control" this, the PLCB should be selling all beer as well, and taking over service at bars ... with PLCB-trained bartenders. Not likely.
The public safety argument fails: "control" of only one segment of the market is no control at all.
Stier mentions collection of taxes, suggesting that because the state stores remit taxes daily, revenues are higher than they would be from private stores. Private businesses do get a 1 percent discount on sales taxes for prompt payment, a common business incentive. But Stier also broadly implies that private businesses often cheat on their taxes.
This is simple. If there are problems with how sales taxes are collected in Pennsylvania, it's a statewide, Department of Revenue problem: Fix it. But it has nothing to do specifically with state store privatization; if anything, it's an argument for the commonwealth to take over all retail businesses, which is a laughable non-starter. Meanwhile, private liquor stores will likely bring back millions in tax revenue that's currently going to stores in Delaware and New Jersey.
Stier's four reasons about the unionized workers at the state stores are dealt with quickly. The main state store employee union is the UFCW. The union's members work at supermarkets, drug stores, food processing plants, manufacturing facilities, nursing homes, and professional offices, as well as government agencies. Obviously the union has successfully organized in private businesses; the wine and liquor stores do not have to be a state-run monopoly to be union shops.
One good reason: the will of the people
But there is one very good reason why the Commonwealth should privatize the state stores: We The People don't want this system anymore. It was forced down our throats in 1933 by the earnestly dry Governor Gifford Pinchot, who wanted to "discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible." We have endured this system, against our will, for almost 80 years; many of us cross the state border illegally to avoid it.
Is it really against our will? Look at three scientifically conducted polls, reported in statewide press, asking citizens if they supported privatization of the State Stores. In 1986, 54 percent were in favor; in 1995, "two out of three" supported it; and just last month, 61 percent favored privatization. That's 27 years of majority support. Polls over the last three years even show that a majority of union households are in favor of privatization.
A poll that found people in favor of free lunch every Thursday wouldn't mean the state should mandate that. But Pennsylvanians only want to join the 42 other states where people don't rely on the decisions of bureaucrats to determine what wine and whisky they're allowed to buy. The legislature needs to explain why they won't act on this unambiguous expression of the people's will. Clearly, if Pennsylvania had a citizen initiative law, we'd have gotten rid of the state stores years ago.
Historically, when a majority of Americans have voiced their views on policy change — women's rights, elimination of the draft, stronger drunk driving laws — the government has respected those views. Liquor store privatization may not be as important as those, but if it's worth legislative debate, it's worth legislative action. It is past time for the Pennsylvania Legislature to embrace the will of the people on this issue.
Lew Bryson is a writer from Langhorne, Pa.