The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the more liberal of our two local papers, had a surprising editorial today. Monopoly money: The LCB is raising the 'handling fee' because it can
In private enterprise, if a merchant feels the need to raise prices, he'll think first about how it will affect business.
Will his competitors raise prices, too? Or will they keep prices the same and gain a competitive advantage? If he senses that ahead of time, the merchant might reconsider the price hike for fear of losing business. At that point he might do something different to improve the bottom line, perhaps cutting costs instead.
It's standard, free-market decision-making. But not if you have a state monopoly, like Pennsylvania's government-run liquor system. The Liquor Control Board has decided to raise its "handling fees" on Jan. 4, perhaps by $1 to $1.50 a bottle, on wine and spirits sold in its 620 state-owned stores and to tavern and restaurant owners.
This price "readjustment," as dubbed by Joseph Conti, CEO of the LCB and a former state senator, could generate up to $87 million in added revenue for the state. No legislative approval needed -- and the next best thing to printing money in the Capitol basement.
With the election of Tom Corbett as governor and with Republican control of both chambers in the General Assembly, this is one Pennsylvania dinosaur that may finally be laid to rest.
Drink up, comrade. You're in Pennsylvania.
Now, this may seem like common sense to you and me, but for the Post-Gazette to come out a) against an existing government program/policy and b) in support of the newly elected Republican government is amazing.
A quick primer on Pennsylvania's insane liquor laws:
Want to buy a bottle of wine or hard liquor? You have to buy it from one of the state-owned liquor stores. Most of these stores carry a decent selection but if there's something out of the mainstream you want, good luck. You can try to have them special order it for you, but you'll have to wait. And, until recently, these stores weren't open on Sunday. Now, around 25% of them are open on Sunday from noon to 5pm.
Want to buy beer? Well, your first question is "how much?"
Want to buy a case? You have to find a beer distributor. These guys can sell you beer by the case or keg. You can't mix and match six packs in the case so you're stuck buying a full case of a specific beer. Selection at these varies but is usually pretty good.
Don't want a full case of beer? No problem - just find a local package store. These are usually restaurants that have a license to sell beer for off-premise consumption. But, don't expect to walk out with much beer - you're limited to 192 ounces per transaction. And a transaction begins when you walk in and ends when you leave the store. So, if you want three six-packs, you'll have to buy two of them, carry them out to your car, and come back in for the third. Selection in most places is pretty limited though there are a few shops that have a very extensive selection.
What does this all mean? Well, say you're going to have a party and want to offer a diverse selection of beverages. Maybe a few bottles of wine, a few different bottles of hard liquor, a case or two of a cheaper beer and maybe three six packs of different micro-brews for those that would appreciate them. That's going to require four trips to three different stores - one to a state store for the wine and liquor. One to a distributor for the case or two of Yuengling. Two trips to a package store - one trip for the first two six-packs and second trip for the third six-pack.
There has been a recent, minor relaxing of the laws - stores that sell prepared food for consumption on premises (a grocery store with a few tables set aside for people to eat something from the deli) can get a "six-pack" license. But, the beer has to be purchased in a separate transaction still. And, these licenses are hard to acquire so there are still only a few places that offer this. Also, in a highly comical move, the state stores are now installing automated "wine kiosks" in a few grocery stores. These will allow you to choose from a selection of 30 - 50 different wines and buy them right inside the store. But, only after you swipe your driver's license and breathe into a breathalyzer. Your license and breathalyzer info is sent to a remote office where a state employee will compare the license photo to a photo taken by the machine and also ensure that you aren't too drunk. If he clears you, then you can take your bottle of wine home.
So what's the hold up to getting these laws changed? The usual suspects, of course.
Privatizing the state liquor stores is opposed by, you guessed it, the Pennsylvania Independent State Store Union. It's FOR THE CHILDREN!!111!! though - how can we ensure that kids don't buy alcohol if we don't have a
union member watching?
Beer sales reform is opposed by a circus of performers. The beer distributor association doesn't want the law reformed to allow "six-pack shops" to sell more than 192 ounces at a time. The "six-pack shops" want that regulation removed so that they can sell larger quantities of beer. But, the "six-pack shops" DON'T want the law to be relaxed far enough to make it easy for grocery stores and other retailers to be able to sell beer however they want.
So, the usual regulatory circus continues to operate. For now. But, Governor-elect Tom Corbett has indicated he'd be willing to privatize the state liquor stores and several Republican members of the PA House and Senate have said they will introduce bills to do that. Now, with a Republican Governor and a Republican-controlled House AND Senate, we may just be able to kill this beast once and for all.