On Thursday, Pennsylvania finally took a step towards the 21st Century, as its House passed legislation to "privatize" the liquor industry. To those outside of our blessed state of Pennsylvania, you actually have to go to special stores to buy beer, wine, and spirits. While you can buy beer from bars or state-licensed beer distributors, you can only buy wine and spirits from state stores that wonderfully close before 9 p.m. and on Sundays. Pennsylvania and Utah are presently the only two states that still restrict alcohol in this way. While most of the country is debating whether we should legalize pot, Pennsylvania is stuck on whether we are responsible enough to handle Arbor Mist.
Up until this point, Pennsylvania has bordered on the absurd to protect its power of monopoly on alcohol. For example, in 2009 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that the Pennsylvanian Uber-Awesome gas station Sheetz was not permitted to sell beer in its sit-down in-door restaurant but may only sell to people on the go. Of course this makes as much sense as a bag full of monkeys. Aren't you trying to discourage drinking and driving? Another example is that of the grocery store, Giant Eagle. The grocery store was not permitted to sell alcohol on site, so they put up a half wall and a chair or two and said basically, "there, its not a grocery store ... it's a restaurant that sells beer connected to a grocery store." Stupid laws create stupid results.
Amazingly the bill only passed the house by a small majority, 105-90. The 90 who voted against it also added that those "con-sarned kids drive too fast and should pull up their pants!" The reasons elicited by those against the bill are the following, as established in the video below, released by the PA AFL-CIO. Their arguments are the following:
1. Only state trained employees can successfully help you pick the best drink possible ... really that's a reason not kidding.
2. State trained employees will under no circumstances sell alcohol to minors because only state workers obey the law and care for their fellow man.
3. Pennsylvania makes "lovely, clean and safe stores"... hahaha ... OK, back to their argument, they also add that this is unlike despicable other States where their liquor stores are "run down" and create "crime."
4. Money from the controlled monopoly for the state ... now here's the real reason ... $500 million dollars a year to be exact.
So I'll run through the four reasons they give (really only one). The first three are really laughable and completely divorced from reality. The first reason they give is that state employees are the most cheery and helpful. Have they ever been to the DMV? I'm sure state trained employees are nice people but there is nothing that makes them more special than the private sector. Go to a State run entity ... any of them ... and then go to Chick-Fil-A and see which employees are nicer. Next!
The second reason is that State trained employees are uniquely talented at looking at IDs to ensure minors never take a sip of alcohol. Do they think criminal laws don't apply elsewhere outside of the state owned store? Facepalm.
The third reason made me laugh out loud. Their argument is that nice state-owned stores reduce crime. First of all, have you ever been to your own stores? The picture above is the Wines and Spirits (courtesy of Google Street View) down the street from my apartment in Pittsburgh. It ain't exactly the Taj Mahal.
The last reason, that it makes the state money's, is the real reason why. The state loves being the only game in town, as it makes $500 million a year. Since this idea works so well lets follow their argument to its logical end. We should also make all grocery stores owned by the state because that way all grocery profits would go to the State too, that is of course until they redistribute it. Ditto all auto dealers, blockbuster videos, and miniature golf courses. You get my point.
So instead of a Pennsylvania citizen owning a store that sells beer or wine and making all their profits directly, the state believes that inserting itself as the middle man (the customer pays the state, the state takes its cut and then gives some to its cheery employees) as the best way to help the local economies. Wouldn't it be better to just let the citizens get it all instead of some? They do make one argument they make that makes some sense. That argument is that we don't want to contribute to our debt and this will unbalance the budget. Good that means we can cut some more waste, may I suggest PennDot?
There is one thing that I don't agree with in this bill. That is that it doesn't privatize enough. Instead of the state just saying, "we're out" of the business, the State is still keeping one its hands in. The state estimates that it will sell enough liquor licenses that will come something close to a $1 billion lump sum. I think the State would have been better just getting out of the game then selling licenses to certain people and not others who have less money. This is a half-hearted "privatization." Pennsylvania ought to complete the job at a later time and bow out entirely. In fact, another suggestion I have would be for the State to loosen up its micro-brewery laws and allow for individuals to sell their home-brews more easily. Right now, and after this law is passed, it is illegal to sell your home-brew without a license. This makes it difficult for a budding business to grow and favors those who have the money to buy the license.
However, despite the law's imperfections, I'll take it as Pennsylvania lags behind the rest of the country in trusting citizens to act like adults. The law must now pass the Pennsylvania Senate and be signed by the governor to become state law. If that happens, we know at least one thing for sure: Sheetz will surely be happy.