Almost every one of us has been there, or at least experienced something like it: It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re standing in the grocery store checkout line, skimming the latest issue of US Weekly, when there’s a tap on your shoulder. You turn to see a befuddled out-of-towner with a shopping cart full of snack food and ice and a look on his face like he just lost his puppy.
“Um, excuse me, but where do they keep the beer in here?”
Trying to stifle your amusement, you explain as best you can that this being Pennsylvania, he’s in the wrong place. If he wants beer in any increment less than 24, he’ll have to find the nearest bar and pay a handsome markup for a six-pack. Or, if he’s lucky, he might just run into one of the dwindling number of delicatessens left in Center City that actually sell retail beer for a reasonable price (but I wouldn’t count on it).
Of course, judging from the amount of ice in his cart, it’s likely he’s looking for more than a six-pack. For that, it’s off to a beer distributor and a whole other set of rules and procedures. (Don’t expect to get a 12-pack—though you can pick up cigarettes, lottery tickets and pork rinds should the mood strike you.)
By now, our once confused tourist is glassy-eyed: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You think that’s bad,” you say, “just try getting a bottle of wine.”
Harrisburg’s Current Attempt to Change PA Liquor Sales
This week, the Pennsylvania Assembly took up a measure that could just spare us further humiliation—not to mention inconvenience. Unfortunately, it won’t have any effect on where beer is sold, but the measure would allow bars to sell cases and beer distributors to sell six-packs. More importantly, it would be an important step on the path to bringing the state out of the dark ages when it comes to access to a legal commercial product, namely alcoholic beverages.
House Bill 11 would replace the Commonwealth’s 621 state-owned liquor stores (Philadelphia has 51 of them) with 1,600 retail licenses—in theory at least, making it much easier for consumers (particularly those who don’t drive) to get wine and liquor.
Opponents of the bill are rightly worried about the fate of the more than 3,500 unionized state store employees whose jobs would be in jeopardy. Some would be hired by new private dispensaries (employers will receive tax credits to do so), while others will no doubt find themselves unemployed. But with a potential for 1,000 new places to buy liquor in Pennsylvania (many of them are expected to be existing beer distributors), the net effect is likely to be more people going to work, not less.
Mike Turzai , the Republican House Majority Leader who sponsored the legislation, says, “This is about moving Pennsylvania out of an area it does not need to be in and focusing instead on those core functions we do best: education, infrastructure, helping those who need it most.”
That might sound a bit gratuitous coming from a member of the party that cut education and welfare spending in Pennsylvania, but Turzai is right on one point: The commonwealth has no business maintaining a complete monopoly on the sale of alcohol.
PA Liquor Sales: Past and Future
Government control over liquor sales is an archaic throwback to the early 1900s, when—under pressure from a strong temperance lobby—states began requiring alcoholic beverages to be sold in dedicated dispensaries. After the country’s ill-conceived experiment with prohibition ended, states were given a number of options for reintroducing liquor sales (or they could choose not to do so at all). It took more than three decades, until 1966, for Mississippi to become the last state to begin allowing the sale of liquor. By then, a total of 32 states had chosen to turn liquor sales over to private industry, while 18 retained some form of monopoly control over the wholesale distribution of booze. Pennsylvania counts itself among the eight states that retain control over retail distribution as well, and is one of only two (Utah being the other) where every single wholesale and retail liquor outlet is government owned and/or managed.
So why should this matter? The pros and cons of privatization are often argued within the framework of dollars and cents, but this is an issue of access more than anything else.
Have you ever tried to get a bottle of wine on a Sunday? Until 2003 you would have been out of luck; and even today only a handful of state stores keep Sunday hours. Also, since they are state run, liquor stores in Pennsylvania are, by default, forced to close on holidays like Christmas and Easter. I think the argument could be made that the government prohibiting a Jew, or a Buddhist or an Atheist from buying a bottle of wine anywhere in Pennsylvania because it’s a Christian holiday violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the separation of church and state.
In any case, polls show that a majority of Pennsylvanians would prefer to buy their booze from someone other than Gov. Tom Corbett and his PCLB—with somewhere north of 60 percent of voters saying they support privatizing liquor sales.
Sadly, the news coming out of Harrisburg isn’t good. After a heated debate on Monday that pitted the bill’s Republican backers against Democrats who balk at the word privatization even when it’s justified, by Wednesday the legislation was losing steam and the local pundits were calling game, set, match. I, for one, am hoping they are wrong.